'He's the best option': Dave Rennie on Quade Cooper's selection
Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie has knocked back suggestions that the selection of Quade Cooper for this week’s Rugby Championship clash against the Springboks on the Gold Coast is a panic move after three straight defeats to the All Blacks.
Instead, Rennie has labelled Cooper, who has been named to play in his first test in four years after being picked in the Australian No 10 jersey, as “the right man for the job” as the Wallabies look to upset the reigning world champions at Cbus Super Stadium.
The selection of Cooper dominated headlines throughout the rugby world on Friday as it marks one of the unlikeliest comebacks to test rugby in recent history.
After last featuring for the Wallabies against Italy in Brisbane in 2017, Cooper has endured a turbulent few years in Australian rugby.
It started in 2018, when Queensland Reds head coach Brad Thorn dropped him from his squad and forced him to play club rugby for Southern Districts in the Queensland Premier Rugby competition during the Super Rugby season.
That sudden fall from grace instigated a move south to the Melbourne Rebels as Cooper looked to push for a place in Australia’s 2019 World Cup squad, but that never came as Wallabies boss Michael Cheika continued to leave him on the outer.
With his future in Australian rugby seemingly in tatters, Cooper opted to play abroad as he signed with the Hanazono Kintetsu Liners at the end of 2019, and it’s in Japan where he remains based to this day.
Most would have expected the 33-year-old to see out the rest of his playing days in the Land of the Rising Sun, but a shock Wallabies recall by Rennie came when star playmaker James O’Connor was hit with a groin injury last month.
Even at the time of Cooper’s unexpected return to the Wallabies camp, the chances of him actually taking to the field were viewed as minimal by many.
Those odds took a further dent last week when he missed out on selection to play the All Blacks at Optus Stadium in Perth, despite heavy speculation linking him to a place in Rennie’s match day squad in the week leading up to the match.
However, an erratic series of performances against the Kiwis by youngster Noah Lolesio has paved the way for Cooper to return to the fray and add to his 70 test caps against the Springboks on Sunday.
It’s Cooper’s vast experience and multi-faceted threat that Rennie will be hoping to see from his star man as the Wallabies aim to register their first, and much-needed, win of the Rugby Championship at the halfway stage of the competition.
The All Blacks typically boast plenty of depth in the outside backs but now, more than ever, everyone is pushing for a spot in the starting lineup. How can Ian Foster make best use of his cattle in the coming weeks? #AllBlacks #NZLvARG
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) September 11, 2021
“He’s the best option,” Rennie told reporters on Friday of his decision to thrust Cooper into the No 10 jersey at the expense of Lolesio.
“I think he’s been with us around four weeks. He’s trained really well. We felt we still need more balance to our game, and he’s got the skill set to deliver that, whether it’s by hand or through the boot.”
Rennie’s faith in Cooper’s skill set has been met with scepticism by some cynics, who have argued that bringing back someone of his age who hasn’t played test rugby in four years, or any rugby in five months, on the back of three straight losses reflects a sense of panic within the Wallabies set-up.
That notion has been rejected by Rennie, though, as he said that Cooper’s training performances and influence on his young squad warrants selection.
“Quade’s been really impressive, contributed massively to the group around discussion and his experience has been great,” Rennie said.
“He’s got an arm around some young guys and we couldn’t be happier with him. He’s certainly trained very well. He’s had another good training this morning and we expect him to put that on the park on the weekend.”
He added: “There’s certainly no panic. We’re basing selections on what we see. Some guys’ selections are based on recent test matches. For Quade, it’s been training.
“He’s trained really well. He was very close to selection last week and got the nod this week. There’s certainly no panic. We’re trying to grow our game. We think he’s the right man to get us around the park.”
Concerns have also been raised about the impact Lolesio’s omission will have on the 21-year-old, who has just eight caps to his name but has started all six of Australia’s tests against France and the All Blacks this year.
Against a vastly under-strength French side, Lolesio starred during his side’s three-test series victory in July, but the young gun found it tough going in three consecutive outings against the All Blacks in Auckland and Perth.
The seasoned Springboks No9 is back fit for Sunday’s Rugby Championship resumption and he has assessed the threat he faces going up against the Wallabies youngster #AUSvRSA #RugbyChampionshiphttps://t.co/1T2iCgrRWk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 10, 2021
Rennie dismissed suggestions that Lolesio’s inconsistent showings against the New Zealanders was a product of a decline in confidence, but rather a reflection of his inexperience at test level.
Rennie had been vocal about the poor option-taking of his playmakers throughout the Bledisloe Cup series, with Lolesio’s inability to identify and exploit space in the backfield at the forefront of those issues.
Instead, the ball was often flung wide via cut-out passes, which led to five intercept tries across the three All Blacks tests and a change of of personnel at first-five for the Springboks clash.
Rennie hopes that Lolesio will develop his tactical understanding by watching Cooper take to the field from the stands this weekend.
“We rate him highly, and that’s the reason why he’s started so many tests. I do believe it’s a chance for him to clear the head a little bit,” Rennie said.
“We’ve got four tests in quick succession coming up and he’s desperate to be better. We’ve got through his game in detail again this week, so he’s learning quickly.
“We’ve talked a lot about the game management side of it and it’s a massive focus for him, so certainly he’ll spend more time and it’s a chance to sit back and watch how other guys operate this week.”
Furthermore, Rennie expects Cooper to make up for what Lolesio lacks in terms of tactical kicking prowess.
“You’ve got to be a triple threat. I think it’s an area where James O’Connor is very good and the best 10s in the world are all very strong in that area,” he said.
“As we’ve said, Quade’s skill set will be really important, his experience will be really important, and I know he’s really excited.
“I imagine he’ll be anxious going into the game, first test in a long time, but we brought him in to give us a bit of cover and to give us a bit of depth, and he’s earned the right to play.”
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