Quade Cooper unfazed by trip to McCaw-land
The last time Quade Cooper played Super Rugby in Christchurch, he was little more than a footnote on the match report. It was 2007, the coach was Eddie Jones and he was on the field for less than a minute. His haircut survives only in photos.
If a week is a long time in sport, six years feels like a lifetime or three. Now Cooper returns to the South Island as one of the most entertaining and contentious players in the code, as well as being a key component of a Queensland Reds side angling to repeat their success of 2011.
He's also destined to, at least partly, relive the tirade of hisses he had swirling around his ears in the Rugby World Cup, where he topped the most-hated list of unrelenting Kiwi fans and sections of the local media.
Given Richie McCaw, the man whose head Cooper patted and later whacked to set the whole thing alight, is nothing less than a Golden God in Canterbury, Christchurch may be the movement's spiritual heart.
With McCaw expected to be added to the Crusaders bench for Saturday night's qualifying final, the stage appears to be set for a hostile reception as the home side tries to reverse the result of their 2011 grand final loss to the Reds in Brisbane.
"I expect that every week. Nothing changes. We just played down in NSW and I take it I'm not the most favourable bloke down there either," Cooper said.
"It is what it is and that's part and parcel of rugby and rivalries in rugby. We've got a great rivalry with the Crusaders as a team. We played them in 2011 and managed to get the win. I'm sure that will add to the occasion."
The Cooper-McCaw narrative is a juicy one but there lies a genuine respect at the heart of the clash.
Before the 2011 final, Christchurch had been demolished by horrifying earthquakes while Brisbane had not long mopped up from destructive flooding.
In that season, the Crusaders were homeless, spending the entire campaign on the road before a final fling at Suncorp Stadium that ultimately failed to provide the fairytale ending.
This time they are in a new ground of their own and on a four-game winning streak, ensuring the Reds will start healthy underdogs as they cross the ditch.
"They always seem to peak at the right time. That's probably why they have a lot of championships next to their name. At the same time, we're confident moving forward in this game," Cooper said.
"No matter who we play, we like to think we've got a great opportunity."
If 2011 was Ewen McKenzie's breakthrough as a coach, 2013 will be his swansong with the Reds before he sits in the big chair with the Wallabies. His side stands on the verge of beating every New Zealand side in a season, a Super Rugby first.
And the Reds have a handy record against the seven-time champions, winning three of their past four against the Crusaders.
"There's a lot of reasons for confidence. In the end, I'm sure we'll go there and nobody will tip us. That's ok because nobody tipped us against the Chiefs the last three times we've been there too. We'll take those circumstances and make the most of it," McKenzie said.
"You'd love to be playing at home - everyone would - but we handle the road pretty well, we handle the Kiwi teams alright and we've done alright against the Crusaders."
All isn't well on the injury front for the Reds. Mike Harris (hamstring) is out, as is Rod Davies (long-term knee), while centre Ant Faingaa (hamstring) will be touch and go.
But the key pairing of captain James Horwill and halfback Will Genia have been given the all clear.