Quade Cooper last played for the Wallabies in June 2017.
He was dropped from the squad for the Rugby Championship and has yet to make a return for the national team. He was also omitted from Brad Thorn’s 2018 Reds squad, instead playing out his contract with the Brisbane City NRC side.
Prior to the Wallabies’ 2017 end of year tour, coach Michael Cheika was confident that the team was adequately covered in the crucial 10 position without Cooper’s inclusion.
“We feel like from a playmakers perspective, we’ve got … [Bernard] Foley first up, and then [Kurtley] Beale and [Reece] Hodge. I see Hodge playing in there at some stage eventually,” Cheika said at the time.
Given that Cooper was already on the outs with the national side and he played no role in Super Rugby in 2018, it wasn’t a surprise that he wasn’t selected in the Wallabies at all in 2018. Foley, Beale and Matt To’omua all received game time in the first five role.
2018 was a less than successful year for Australian rugby, to put it mildly. The team mustered a paltry 4 wins from 13 games played, with Ireland securing a first-ever series win in Australia.
Whilst there were a number of deficiencies in the Wallabies’ game, the lack of confidence and inspiration coming from the playmaker role was clear to everyone. Foley, once considered the ‘safe’ option to Cooper’s more maverick approach, was dropping balls and missing goals at a rate considerably higher than any international should be permitted to do. Beale and To’omua simply looked like midfielders that had been shifted into the first receiver role.
Rebel with a cause
The 2019 season has seen the return of Quade Cooper to Super Rugby – now at the Rebels – and calls were reignited for the New Zealand-born first five to be reinstated to the Wallabies after a stellar start to the season.
After little more than a month of competition, the halves duo of Will Genia and Cooper were the form combination, contributing to more try and line-break assists than any other pairing in Super Rugby. Wallabies supporters were sure that the Rebels were being treated to Australia’s halves combo which could lead the country to World Cup glory.
As has now become an annual tradition, the Rebels successes quickly started to dry up as the competition went on, with the Melbourne side losing seven of their last nine matches. In the final two games of the competition, the Rebels were pasted 66-0 and 59-8 by the Crusaders and the Chiefs.
It’s no coincidence that the lack of success in Melbourne has come at the same time as a drop in form for Cooper.
Some will still be calling for Cooper to make a return to the Wallabies on the back of his overall season with the Rebels, but it’s become painfully clear in recent weeks that the man simply doesn’t have the composure to guide the Wallabies to any great success.
If the early season showed what Cooper can do when his team is on the front foot, then this past weekend’s match with the Chiefs highlighted the kind of player that Cooper can be when his team is under pressure.
The Chiefs scored nine tries in Friday night’s match. Cooper played a part in six of them.
1 Sam Cane try
The Rebels were hard on attack but were struggling to compromise the Chiefs’ resolute defence and get past the 10m line in Chiefs territory.
Cooper received the ball and, with other options not working, opted to put a chip through behind the Chiefs defence. The ball found space but bounced away from the Rebels chasers – instead finding its way into the arms of Jack Debreczeni.
Whilst a chip wouldn’t always be a poor option, the Chiefs cover defence were already waiting back in anticipation of the move. Debreczeni, Solomon Alaimalo and Sean Wainui were all camped in the 22. The bounce of the ball did not help the Rebels’ cause.
Ex-Rebel Debreczeni sparked a counter attack and the Chiefs raced 80 metres to score under the posts. Halfback Brad Weber ran almost 20 metres on his own – easily stepping around a flailing Cooper in the process.
2 Shaun Stevenson try
Less than 10 minutes later, another Cooper kick went horribly awry.
This time, the Rebels were launching an attack from inside their half and Cooper opted for a grubber – not for the first time. Early in the match a wrap then grubber had gained the Rebels a solid 20 metres without losing possession – evidently Cooper thought the move could work again.
Cooper wrapped around Tom Banks and tried to slot a kick between Anton Lienert-Brown and Shaun Steveneson. His left footer, however, was easily blocked by Stevenson. The gangly wing chased and collected the rebound, then dashed away to score untouched.
3 Lachlan Boshier try
With the final play of the first half, the Rebels once again fell on their own sword.
A loose pass on the Rebels 10 metre line from another Wallaby, Reece Hodge, was scooped up by Stevenson. Stevenson raced away, stepping around the covering Cooper. To his credit, Cooper eventually brought Stevenson to ground – but it wasn’t enough to prevent a try, with Lachlan Boshier on hand to collect Stevenson’s offload.
The game was barely half complete and the Chiefs had three tries all stemming from Rebels errors.
4 Sean Wainui try
While the Chiefs had to play with a bit more structure to score their fourth try – only two minutes after the second half kicked off – the score still came on the back of a number of missed tackles from the Rebels.
From a scrum on the Rebels 22, the Chiefs managed to spread the ball out to Sean Wainui who was parked out on the left wing. Wainui proceeded to step off his left foot, bamboozling Cooper, and score in the tackles of Hodge and Campbell Magnay.
5 Jack Debreczeni try
Come the 57th minute of the match, the Rebels were already behind by six tries. Things were about to get worse.
From a scrum on halfway, Weber made mince meat of the Rebels defensive line. The tiny tyro ran sideways then straightened up to burst through the line – fending off Cooper in the process. Weber then passed inside to the supporting Debreczeni who scored untouched.
6 Marty McKenzie try
The Chiefs’ final try, courtesy of replacement first five, Marty McKenzie, was more a product of the lack of cohesion between Cooper and the recently returned Matt To’omua than any lack of skills.
The pair tried to launch an attack off a scrum on their 22m line, but the short pass from Too’mua to Cooper found only Cooper’s outstretched fingertips. The ball hit the turf and McKenzie kicked it through to dot down.
The six tries that Cooper played a role in were not all his doing; others were just at much as fault as he was. Unfortunately for the flyhalf, however, he was the common denominator.
Cooper also made a number of other errors, including an up-and-under attempt that finished up about 5 metres outside of play and two kick-offs that went out on the full.
No time for wild risks
Some of his errors show a lack of skill, but some are simply a sign of the impact that confidence (or lack thereof) can have on a player.
Cooper has been known to crack under pressure – and the 2019 World Cup would probably be the highest-pressure situation that the Rebel could ever find himself in, given how high the expectations would be.
If Cooper had maintained his form from earlier in the season then perhaps Cheika would be willing to take a shot on the man who can create something from nothing. As it stands now, however, Cooper would be required to learn all the various systems and gel with the new players that have been introduced since he last represented the side.
World Cup year is not the time to be taking a punt on an unknown quality. With Foley, Beale, To’omua and Hodge all likely to make the cut, Cooper could well find himself missing out on selection once again.
At his absolute best, Quade Cooper is one of the most talented first fives in world rugby. Unfortunately, Cooper’s best is something that we have rarely seen – even in a season that promised so much.
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