Incoming Wallabies selector Michael O’Connor has outlined what pragmatic playmaker Quade Cooper must do to re-earn Wallabies selection.
“There are still areas in his game he needs work on and if he can improve those, well then he’ll be in the reckoning,” O’Connor said.
“I would be very surprised if Michael [Cheika] didn’t agree with that.
“At Test level though you can’t be throwing blind passes. You can’t be taking risks at the line.”
As vague as the statement is, there isn’t much at face value Cooper can take away from that and hopefully conversations behind closed doors reveal more to him. The message seems to be that Cooper must take fewer risks, not make better decisions and execute.
“You can’t be taking risks at the line” is the most concerning thing to hear in particular.
Any ball-player needs to play at the line in order to create. That is the only way to challenge defenders and open holes with a passing game. That is what Johnny Sexton does for Ireland. Joe Schmidt is designing plays to put Sexton in position to ball-play and take risks, albeit delicately calculated, at the line.
It is almost the entire foundation of their attacking game – Sexton’s job is to create line breaks to win attacking field position, halfback Conor Murray’s job is to land the killer blows inside the 22.
Outside of that, you must have game-breaking athletes like Israel Folau or Stuart Hogg to break the line, who can shed tackles and do it all by oneself, something the 30-year-old Cooper isn’t going to do.
The Wallabies have struggled with this ‘early wide ball’ philosophy under Cheika, hoping that their athletes can make something happen by hopelessly spinning wide through the halves that do nothing but add more depth to the play by standing deep and shoveling deeper.
Trying to go around defences has only resulted in continually going backward for the Wallabies in recent years. The international game is so tight now with the advancement of defence, space is at a premium. You have to be smarter about how you create space in this age, which we have only really seen the Wallabies do in the Salta miracle game when the game plan ‘was thrown out the window’ at halftime against Argentina. They played direct and passed flat to runners hitting gaps and made a historic comeback that likely saved Cheika’s job. Israel Folau’s best plays for the Wallabies are now coming from running a hard line outside a pod, hitting a change-up ball flat at pace at the line, showing how it’s done.
Cooper should be encouraged to play at the line, and better yet, play should be designed to manufacture situations where the odds of him finding success are higher. You scheme the ‘where and when’, aim to create overlaps and personnel mismatches, live and die on him making the right read, review and learn from the mistakes, adjust and try again.
It’s not about taking fewer risks, it’s about minimising risk and putting odds in your favour for maximising reward, and actually, use his playmaking and game-changing talents. If Cooper is put in as another robotic distributor in Cheika’s system, it will do nothing to improve the Wallabies play.
We have seen him play a conservative ‘distributor’ role in the Wallabies before under Cheika. In a 2016 Bledisloe Cup match, in one of his last games against the All Blacks, Quade Cooper was given the start in Wellington by Cheika, with Bernard Foley moving to 12.
It was the most un-Quade test match seen and resulted in the Wallabies losing 29-9. He did not fire a shot the whole match, instead, going through the motions of programming Cheika’s pattern as a passer with his feet in cement blocks and a shovel in his hands.
He played his instructed role, took no risk and they went nowhere. He finished with a total of two running metres, passing 14 times and running four, although most of these carries were taking it to ground in the face of pressure. There are genuine concerns about his decision-making at times, but Cooper’s worst test matches aren’t always the result of taking obscene risks, it’s usually when the basics start to go wrong – dropping high balls in the backfield, kicking out on the full of the restart, which are execution errors.
Hopefully these throwaway comments by Michael O’Connor are meaningless air, but it’s all too familiar and illustrative of Australian Rugby’s inability to find and develop a new international flyhalf – they don’t know what to look for or how to use one, and certainly telling a flyhalf not to take risks at the line is scary advice for a team that finished with their worst attacking year on record.
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