“Skill and confidence are an unconquered army.” So said the 17th century Welsh born theologian, collector of proverbs and poet George Herbert. After digesting a recent comment made by Rugby Australia’s new Director of Coaching Scott Johnson, I wonder if some Wallabies fans prayers have actually been answered that would satisfy old George?
In a recent press conference, Johnson is quoted, “What I’ll attempt to do … I grew up in a great era, I worked as a coach and a player through a great era of Australian rugby where we were known for our acumen and skill and I think they were two great credits to the people involved, coaches and the like.”
Therefore, logic would determine that Australian rugby is looking for a confident and skillful player oozing rugby acumen to champion the Johnson mantra. It has one! His name is Quade Cooper. The Melbourne Rebels fly-half is currently the most dangerous fly-half currently on Australian soil, if not the southern hemisphere.
With the Rebels currently leading the Australian conference after seven rounds of Super Rugby 2019, it is apparent that the often-maligned playmaker has energised and refined the Rebel’s play to great effect.
The Rebels are the must-watch side of Australian rugby and full credit must go to head coach Dave Wessels and his staff for enabling a match philosophy that is conducive to Cooper’s natural playing abilities whilst also curtailing his known appetite for risk.
The mark of a great coach is improving a player’s game. I fondly recall the anecdote of 1986 Wallabies coach Alan Jones on the successful tour of New Zealand where it is understood at half time in the second test with the Australians ahead, whilst addressing the Wallaby side Jones looked at his left winger and said, “Peter Grigg, you are playing better than you can!’
That same viewpoint is applicable to players alike. Those playing around Cooper are playing the best rugby of their careers. Rugby they themselves may not have thought they were capable of.
Billy Meakes has been on the Australian scene for several seasons now and has had stints in and out the Wallabies squad but has never broken through for a test cap. Yet since Cooper’s arrival in the Victorian capital Meakes is playing with confidence skill not previously seen and putting his name up for test selection.
“Quade has had a huge input into the way we want to play this year, and with the coaches, spent a fair amount of time on the style of game we want to play,” Meakes told Rugby.com.au.
“I think having someone so creative alongside me just allows me to do my job. He is obviously very specific what he wants from me but it comes with a sense of freedom to allow me to use my skill set to the best of my ability.”
It comes as no surprise that the leading try scorer in Super Rugby is, in fact, Melbourne Rebels winger Jack Maddocks who has crossed the paint eight times this season and the unheralded outside centre Tom English is equal fifth with five tries to his name. It is evident that both are thriving with a skillful and confident Quade Cooper running the Rebel cause.
Yet Director of Rugby Johnson should be wary of simply selecting Quade Cooper and thinking his Super Rugby form with the Rebels will materialise into golden Wallaby performances. They will not under the current Wallaby selections and game philosophy of Wallabies coach Michael Cheika.
Cheika relies on the dual openside flanker back row which ultimately weakens the Wallabies lineout and scrum. These are facets of play where the Rebels do not struggle. In 2019 both the Rebels lineout and scrum operate at over 90%.
Whilst a truly gifted attacker, Cooper like any fly-half will struggle if not given front-foot ball consistently.
Even All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen knows the value of such when he was recently quoted in Stuff, a New Zealand publication, “He’s playing behind the Rolls-Royce pack,” Hansen said of Richie Mo’unga after he had outplayed Beauden Barrett twice in Super Rugby last year.
And that is the second part of the challenge for Johnson. Not only must he convince his fellow selectors in Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and Michael O’Connor to select Quade Cooper, but he must also get them to select a forward pack and game plan that would provide such a platform to allow Cooper to bring his skill and confidence into the Wallabies camp.
Former Wallabies Coaches Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie both selected Quade Copper in their respective sides with polarising results. Under Robbie Deans, Cooper was not at ease and appeared suffocated and constrained. The results never materialised for Deans with Cooper as fly-half.
Yet under Ewen McKenzie, Cooper played the best test rugby of his life so far as he was given greater freedom and options and nearly took the Wallabies to a Grand Slam in 2013. No wonder Rebels Coach Dave Wessels has adopted the McKenzie line.
The Wallabies have lost consistency in the lineout since the arrival of current forwards coach Simon Raiwaliu in 2018 and I suggest he should be removed and replaced by Melbourne Rebels forwards coach Geoff Parling forthwith.
The former English and British Lions lock-forward took up a coaching role with the Rebels in 2019 and prior to commencing the role at Melbourne.
“He’s technically very, very aware and very proficient about a lot of the skills that are needed, particularly from a top-quality line-out forward,” Exeter Director of Rugby Rob Baxter told the BBC.
“But his range is broader than that – he’s got a very good knowledge of all aspects of rugby.
“He could be a fantastic acquisition, particularly in Australia. Talking to some Australian coaches, they feel they maybe lack a bit of detail sometimes in some of their application.
“That will be Geoff’s bread and butter; some of the detail around how the forwards play, but also around the breakdown and attacking patterns and the reasons for doing things defensively.”
In 2019 the Rebels forwards are an intelligent, skillful beast to contend with. In the recent Super Rugby match against the Queensland Reds, the Rebels forwards looked to disrupt the Reds forward attack at its inception instead of nullifying in later phases.
The Reds never quite got their platform from the lineout, nor could they dominate the scrum and attract penalties as they liked to do. The Rebels out-muscled and out-thought their rivals. It appears all that Baxter was saying is materialising and it is that much needed acumen Parling could bring to the Wallabies forwards in 2019.
What is quite clear is that the Rebels forwards have provided Quade Cooper with the requisite platform allowing him to unleash the likes of Maddocks, Meakes and English. The challenge now is to provide Cooper with the Wallaby platform to unleash Kerevi, Folau, Beale, and Maddocks.
Johnson must use his arrival to usher in those who can deliver the skill and acumen he seeks. With the selection of Quade Cooper and appointment of Geoff Parling as the Wallabies forwards coach at the appropriate times he can. The results of the years past echo the loudest. But will the selectors listen?
Perhaps? Or perhaps I should point them towards the prose of George Herbert who in his Outlandish Proverbs included this wisdom, “Who is so deaf, as he that will not hear?”
Michael Cheika talks to RugbyPass:
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