Queensland coach Richard Graham has declared Quade Cooper's spring tour form his ''best yet'' at test level and expects the playmaker to bring his red-hot game to bear on the Reds this year.
Fresh from a summer sojourn in the boxing ring, Cooper is in line to make his return to the Reds No 10 jersey in the team's important trial match against defending champions the Chiefs in Toowoomba this weekend.
Graham watched the five-eighth closely during the Wallabies' disappointing Rugby Championship campaign and was delighted with Cooper's return to sizzling form during their five-game tour of the northern hemisphere in November.
''It was, I think, clearly his best yet at international level,'' he said. ''I thought [his performances] were superb, particularly as they were produced in a fairly intense period, having had a change of coach and the results they achieved early in the Rugby Championship.
''As a coach you hope players take confidence from those periods and that it's a catalyst for something special this season.''
As trials go, this weekend's clash with the most dominant team in the competition for the past two years promises to be a benchmark indicator for what is in store in Super Rugby this season.
Cooper's return to the line up alongside playmaking partner Will Genia and captain James Horwill will boost a side in transition under a new head coach.
''It's important for us to find a good standard at the trial where we can test ourselves and the work we have done through pre-season,'' Graham said. ''I think you'd expect a really good quality of rugby. You have to take into account that it's the first of the pre-season fixtures, so you're not going to get the finished product, but you're going to get a good insight into how both teams are going to play this season.
''For us, we've got strong aspirations and [the Chiefs] are the two-time defending champions, so it will be a good match up.''
Graham and his assistants - forwards coach Nick Stiles and attack coach Steve Meehan - are under pressure this year to reinforce the brand of attacking rugby the Reds became known for under their previous coach Ewen McKenzie.
Despite making the finals for the third season running last year with a style of play that produced Super Rugby's second-best defensive record, tries were slim on the ground. The Reds produced fewer tries than all but three other outfits in the 15-team competition.
Australian rugby's traditional entertainers could be suffering from the same blight as the Waratahs and even Wallabies before them: too much kicking, too few five-pointers.
''You devise a game around the players you have around in your squad,'' Graham said. ''Philosophically, I'd like to think people will still see the Reds running the ball and innovating in front of packed out crowds, but there's always going to be changes when there's changes in staff.
''We'll be working hard to make sure we can score a few more tries than last year.''
But the new man in charge - Graham looked after Queensland's defence while McKenzie presided over his final season at Ballymore - wants the hard numbers to be kept in perspective.
''The Stormers have never been recognised as an attacking side but continue to challenge in semis and finals whilst they've been criticised, and for a third successive season we've been in a finals series,'' he said.
''People will say the Waratahs had a certain perception for a long period of time and Michael Cheika did a good job of turning that around last year, but perception and reality aren't always the same thing. I don't think anyone would have walked away from a Reds game [last year] and said that was boring. The team's ability to play an expansive game was still apparent.''
Statistics aside, there is no doubt the recent Test form of squad leaders including Cooper, Genia, Horwill and prop James Slipper will boost a side eager to scale the heights of 2011 again.
''Any time players can go to an international level and contribute the way those guys did [for the Wallabies] last year - even for a guy like [young winger] Chris Feauai-Sautia to go on that tour and play in a Test match - the confidence that instills in the group is significant.''
- Sydney Morning Herald
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