WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The Otago Highlanders have made no secret of their game plan in their Super Rugby clash with the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday -- stop Quade Cooper.
The Rebels' enigmatic flyhalf showed little rust two weeks ago in his return to Super Rugby after he was reduced to playing lower-level club rugby in Brisbane in 2018 when he was told he was no longer wanted at the Queensland Reds.
Cooper, in tandem with former Wallabies and Reds inside back partner Will Genia, was instrumental in leading the Melbourne-based side to a 34-27 victory over the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on Feb. 15, earning him plaudits from his coach, fellow players and commentators.
"Quade has got X-factor. If you expect him to do one thing, then you might miss the other one," said Highlanders assistant coach Mark Hammett. "He is an extremely talented player."
The performance also raised the antennae of New Zealand's rugby coaches who have made no secret in the past -- at Super Rugby or international level -- that it was crucial to stop Cooper from imposing his will on the game.
"Quade is one of those guys that if you give him too much time and space he can really hurt teams," Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger said before the side travelled to Melbourne.
"So, there's been a bit of focus on making sure we don't give him any time or room to move and if there is a little bit of time, making sure we're working together ... defensively.
"If we do that hopefully we can put those guys under a bit of pressure."
How much pressure the Highlanders are able to exert on Genia and Cooper will also depend on how aggressive they are in defence, with Mauger unhappy with their one-on-one tackling last week against the Queensland Reds.
That forward momentum allowed Samu Kerevi and Jordan Petaia to also carve up their midfield defence, which has resulted in the Dunedin-based side having the worst tackle success rate (81 percent) in the competition.
"We expect a real physical encounter," Mauger said.
"They are a big team, similar to the Reds, and in some areas we weren't good enough last week, matching that physical battle, so it's something that we've focused on this week and we want to make sure we don't get smacked on the nose by the Rebels.
"Our boys will be ready from minute one."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)