Will Wallabies unleash Quade Cooper on All Blacks?
SPOTLIGHT: Australian coach Dave Rennie has hinted that veteran playmaker Quade Cooper could make his long-awaited return to the Test arena against the All Blacks next weekend.
Rennie gave Cooper a surprise call-up to the Wallabies squad ahead of their Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship campaigns last month after incumbent pivot James O’Connor suffered a groin complaint during Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Cooper hasn’t played for the Wallabies since 2017, and the 70-test veteran watched on from the stands as the Wallabies were defeated in successive tests in Auckland earlier this month as the All Blacks locked the Bledisloe Cup away for a 19th straight year.
However, with the two sides set to meet each other for a third and final time this year at Optus Stadium in Perth next Sunday, Cooper could be called on by Rennie as the Wallabies look to overturn their luckless pair of results.
In both tests against the All Blacks, Rennie opted for youngster Noah Lolesio in the No.10 jersey, while the experienced Matt To’omua provided cover off the bench in the first test before starting at No 12 in the second.
Lolesio struggled in both matches as he threw two intercept tries across both games and endured a horror night off the kicking tee in the opening clash of the Bledisloe Cup series.
To’omua didn’t fare much better when handed his starting opportunity in the midfield as he was also guilty of throwing an intercept that led to a try.
That has led to speculation over who will be handed the playmaking reins for the third test in Western Australia, and with Cooper hanging in the wings, the Wallabies have an experienced yet brilliantly creative first-five at their disposal.
Speaking to media, Rennie said Cooper has stood out so much since coming into the squad that there is now pressure on the coaching staff to select the 33-year-old in next week’s test.
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“He’s been fantastic in the group. Can’t speak highly enough of him,” Rennie said of the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners flyhalf.
“Even when we had a few days off at the front of the week, he was driving a lot of the training and additional stuff a number of the boys were doing out on the field here or down at the gym.
“He’s been a big contributor to all meetings and discussions and prepared to share his mileage and he’s trained really well.
“His ability for pass selection or kicking options has been spot on and it’s been really good, from a training perspective, for us.
“He’s pretty much been running the New Zealand play, so he’s been great, and he’s applying pressure on us for selection.”
Cooper, alongside Tokyo Sungoliath’s Samu Kerevi and Toulon’s Duncan Paia’aua, is one of three foreign-based players in the current Wallabies squad.
As Cooper has been based abroad since the end of 2019, Rennie hasn’t had the chance to see him in action on Australian soil during his tenure as Wallabies boss, but he suggested that won’t count against Cooper’s selection chances.
“We’ve been in a tough French series, we’re into our third All Blacks test, you go into a Rugby Championship, and then we tour over the other side of the world and we’re probably playing over 80 percent of the top 10 sides in the world,” Rennie said.
“That’s great from our perspective. We’re going to learn a lot, but we’ve got a pretty big squad.
“We train against each other daily. I wouldn’t say they’re brutal, it may be at times, but it’s certainly combative and competitive, and so we get a pretty good idea of where Quade and others are at.”
That could also bode well for Kerevi, who has been called into the Wallabies squad for the first time in two years following a brief stint with the Australian sevens squad at the Tokyo Olympics.
With only 33 tests to his name, Kerevi doesn’t qualify for the Wallabies under the Giteau Law criteria, but Rugby Australia has relaxed those rules to allow Rennie to pick two foreign-based players who would otherwise be ineligible for selection.
The move is designed to help Rennie pick his best possible Wallabies squad, and the inclusion of Kerevi certainly goes some way to achieving that.
The 27-year-old midfielder is a renowned ball-carrier who is capable of tearing defences to pieces at his destructive best, but Rennie has been more impressed with the development of Kerevi’s all-round skill set in recent times.
“He’s been excellent. Like Quade, he’s an experienced man who is contributing really well. There’s a fair bit to get your head around, of course, but he’s been excellent,” Rennie said.
“He’s obviously played over in Suntory. A good mate of mine, Jason O’Halloran, coaches over there.
“He gave me some really positive feedback around Samu, his preparation and the detail around trying to be better each day, and we’re seeing evidence of that in our squad.”
That evidence translates to an improved passing and kicking game, of which Rennie may look to utilise against the All Blacks.
“I know he’s done a lot of work on it at Suntory, so he’s certainly worked on his kicking game, on his distribution. As we know, he can be direct, he’s got an ability to offload beyond the tackle.
“I know he’s worked really hard on the defensive side of his game, so it’s been a real credit to him.”
The prospect of Cooper and Kerevi pairing up at No 10 and No 12 against the Kiwis is a formidable one, as is the thought of Cooper, if picked to start, going head-to-head with two-time World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett.
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster named Barrett as the only out-and-out first-five in his initial 35-man travelling squad to Australia, with incumbent pivot Richie Mo’unga remaining in New Zealand due to the imminent arrival of his second child.
Mo’unga’s absence has paved the way for Barrett to earn just his second test start of the year after he struggled to return to peak form since coming back to New Zealand from his Top League sabbatical in Japan.
Although Barrett – who will join Brodie Retallick in assisting newly-named All Blacks captain Ardie Savea as vice-captain in next week’s test – is yet to replicate his world-beating form at test level, Rennie is acutely aware of the threat he poses.
“He was voted best player in the world a couple years in a row, wasn’t he? He played a lot of 10 at Suntory and he’s played an enormous amount of 10 over a lot of years, and a lot of that is test footy,” Rennie said.
“We’ll make no secret of it, you’ve got to be able to shut down their 9 and 10, make it difficult for them to get their game going, so we’ve tried to do that with Richie and Aaron [Smith], and it’ll be the same with Beaudy and whoever they play at 9.”
Regardless of who starts at No 10 for the Wallabies in just over a week’s time, the Wallabies will have to continue to make do without O’Connor, who will rejoin the squad when they travel to Brisbane for the Queensland leg of the Rugby Championship.
“He’s going pretty well. We expect him to rejoin the squad once we get back to Brisbane. We’re not certain he’ll be available for that first test against South Africa, but he’ll be pretty close.”
By Alex McLeod, RugbyPass