A week after the Maori put the United States to the sword in Chicago in the first leg of an unique rugby double-header in the Windy City, flanker Elliot Dixon, scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow, wing Rieko Ioane and full-back Damian McKenzie will be on All Blacks duty against Italy in Rome tomorrow as the world champions bid to bounce back from their stunning loss to Ireland.
Which means opportunities for another batch of hopefuls looking to make an impression in a side with a developmental mission every bit as important as its cultural significance.
The Maori will be in Limerick tonight to play Munster at a sold-out Thomond Park, the latest touring side from overseas to visit the iconic Irish stadium, the history of which Cooper is very much aware.
“Oh yeah, this is a big deal,” he said of tonight’s game. “I’ve a lot of respect. As Kiwis we have a lot of respect for Munster and for Irish rugby so we’re going over best prepared because we know it’s going to be a tough battle.”
As a former Maori All Black himself and a veteran coach in Super Rugby, current Taranaki boss Cooper recognises the significance of both aspects of the touring team he leads: the honour and the opportunity.
“Exactly. They represent their family, their whakapapa (genealogy), which goes right the way back into their family and they represent their team, and then there’s the opportunity to become a full-time player, to become an All Black by making this team,” Cooper told thein Chicago the morning after their 54-7 defeat of the US Eagles.
“So there’s a lot of people at home that are Maori who want to play for the Maori All Blacks. It’s (also) about our culture and the legacy before us.
“It’s more than 100 years old, that legacy and it’s about the quality of players that have come through that and like the All Black legacy, we drive the Maori legacy.
“You have to have Maori blood in you to play for this team and people have questioned that but this team is a great example to help inspire youth back in our country to play rugby and to be better people.
“We try and showcase our game, our country and our culture on and off the field. I played for this team and now I’m its coach again and I’m very proud of that.”
Ireland may have handed the All Blacks their first defeat in 19 games, but there is no disputing New Zealand’s position at the top of the world rugby rankings nor its unrivalled pool of players.
Yet Cooper believes the quality of coaching and the character they instil in their charges has to match the ability of those players.
“The country’s got so much talent but for me talent alone won’t make this team. You’ve got to have good character and because of the responsibility and accountability of the past, who we’re representing and who we’re trying to inspire, character is as important as talent.
“We have a lot of talent in our country at the moment, as you’re seeing with the All Blacks’ success, with the Hurricanes winning Super Rugby.
“I think our edge is our interprovincial competition, the Mitre 10, where we’re growing (talent) and under that there’s the secondary schools and clubs. So there’s a lot of development work going on.
“These kids start chucking the ball at the age of five and in our country that’s all they’re brought up with but the development of coaches is also so important. We do lose a lot of our coaches from the country too but there’s a lot coming through.”
Cooper, 57, is now helping to develop the next generation of coaches as well as players as head coach of his home province Taranaki. He stepped back from Super Rugby in 2010 having been the Crusaders forwards coach in their Super Rugby title run of 2002 and then moving to the Hurricanes as head coach between 2003 and 2010, reaching the semi-finals four times and the final in 2006.
There have also been stints at the helm of the New Zealand U21 and Junior All Blacks sides while this is his second term as Maori All Blacks head coach. His decision to leave Super Rugby was, he said, a simple one.
“I wanted to be home. I’ve got three children, nine grandchildren. I’d had nine years of Super Rugby and it was just time go back and have a breather. I was able to bring some structure into Taranaki and we’ve done all right. Now we’re trying to grow coaches. Life’s good with me.”