BRISBANE - The Queensland Reds will rely on Quade Cooper's audacious playmaking to revive their Super Rugby defence against NSW but it's his improved defence which holds the key to his Wallabies return.
Cooper is likely to have tonight's crunch clash with the Waratahs, featuring Australia's incumbent five-eighth Berrick Barnes at inside centre, as his last audition for a Test recall.
The seventh-placed Reds need a four-try bonus-point win to give them a realistic shot of making next week's play-offs, but national selectors will be looking at Cooper's tackling as much as the attacking skills which could keep the defending champions alive.
Queensland coach Ewen McKenzie revealed he's returned Cooper from fullback to the front-line in defence to improve his claims on the Wallabies No.10 jersey for the Rugby Championship.
It's a challenge the 24-year-old, maligned as a poor defender since making his Reds debut in 2007, has embraced but he's sure to be targeted by the Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium.
McKenzie, who moved him out of the front-line in 2010 to utilise his counter-attacking skills, believes Cooper has unfairly copped harsh criticism.
"In the higher representative honours, they're looking for more consistency so we've acknowledged that to help him at the next level," he told AAP.
"It's more a matter of demonstrating he can line up where a Test No.10 is expected to more than anything else — just to prove to everyone that he can do that."
Cooper did prove it in last weekend's gutsy 19-13 win over the Highlanders when he pulled off three clutch tackles on Adam Thomson, Chris Noakes and Jamie Mackintosh in the last two minutes to prevent a match-winning try.
"I've enjoyed defending in the front-line," the five-eighth said.
"I've enjoyed watching my game progress and I've been able to add extra dimensions to my game."
With Wallabies coach Robbie Deans a big fan of Brumbies centre Pat McCabe, Barnes — a stand-out in the 3-0 series whitewash over Wales last month —isn't expected to move to No.12 to accommodate Cooper.