What now for Quade Cooper now that James O’Connor has come a callin’ and wants his five-eighth position back?
Just over two weeks ago, it all looked straightforward enough. Even after Cooper landed that last-gasp penalty goal to defeat the Springboks on the Gold Coast, the widespread expectation was he was probably a seat warmer. I may have contributed to that mindset, suggesting his role in future should be to make “targeted appearances at five-eighth” while the main game at 10 continued to revolve around O’Connor and his fast-rising understudy Noah Lolesio.
I didn’t want to rain on Cooper’s parade by explaining the reasoning behind that thinking but my fear was that continued exposure in the playmaking position would eventually undermine his authority. That was the lesson of the past, at the Queensland Reds and later at the Melbourne Rebels. Brilliant starts fading over time to “crash and burn”. So, there was an element of saving Cooper from himself.
But as we are starting to discover, this is very much a changed Quade Cooper. The hell-raising maverick who used to leap from one breathtaking adventure to the next, with never a backwards glance, has evolved into a thoughtful traveller. He recognises he is on a journey through life, not just his rugby career.
There have been no scatterbrained moments since his return, no loopy passes. True, there have been times when his instincts almost took over as he locked and loaded for a triple cut-out. But then his mind asserted itself and told his body to cool it. Peter FitzSimons described him, very aptly, as “the ballast” in the Australian side, the stabilising weight working against a sudden capsize. It is such an un-Quade-like role to play and yet he looks entirely comfortable in it. But can he sustain it?
O’Connor made his return from a long-term groin injury on Saturday in Townsville against the Pumas and looked very much like a player who has not played rugby for months. He crabbed sideways with his first touch, until linking with Taniela Tupou. Any run that ends with the Tongan Thor smashing into the opposition can probably be forgiven but, still, the rustiness couldn’t be hidden.
Quade Cooper has barely put a foot wrong since his stunning Wallabies recall.Credit:Getty
There was considerable speculation about whether O’Connor would be brought on in place of Cooper at 10 or Reece Hodge at 15. As it happened, Cooper was playing marginally better than Hodge. There is a drive afoot for Hodge to finally cement himself in the side in a fixed position and Dave Rennie clearly didn’t want to interfere with that. The alternative was to play O’Connor at fullback, meaning he and Cooper could both have been on the field simultaneously. Interesting that Rennie didn’t go down that path.
And what of Lolesio? Having been put through the meat grinder of the Bledisloe Cup series as starting playmaker, he has been rested for the Wallabies’ run of three successive victories, the first time they have achieved such success since going an unbeaten seven-match run in 2017. Is he now itching for a return?
Australia needs to settle on its halves combination, and quickly. History instructs that World Cup success is determined by having a settled halves pairing at least two years out. Steve Larkham and George Gregan broke that rule when they combined for the first time only in 1998, the year before steering Australia to a Webb Ellis triumph, but overwhelmingly it holds true.
The Wallabies can’t dither as they did in 2019 when Christian Lealiifano, Matt To’omua and Bernard Foley were rotated through the 10 jersey right up to the World Cup and even during it. That means Rennie must decide very soon whether Cooper will be part of his team for Paris 2023.
The Wallabies coach has proven himself remarkably dispassionate when it comes to selections. He proved that when he decided to drop Harry Wilson to the bench and then from the squad entirely, even though Wilson was, arguably, his best player in 2020. Now he prefers Rob Valetini locking the scrum, with Pete Samu offering the versatility of playing at six, seven or eight.
Cooper, I now believe, can spearhead a Wallabies’ World Cup revival. Even his defence is up to the task. He fell off a couple of front-line tackles against Argentina, but he still slowed them sufficiently for the big men to complete the job. Significantly, the Pumas did not make a single clean line-break for the entire match in Townsville, the first time that has happened since 2013.
The great unknown is whether he can maintain the discipline of continuing to play within himself. Or is Rennie prepared for him to ease his way back to a full repertoire of tricks? Either way, it won’t be easy. But if he can carve out a permanent niche, he could yet realise his manifest destiny of leading the Wallabies to a World Cup final.
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