Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has taken possibly the biggest gamble of his career, at least in Australia, after recalling mercurial five-eighth Quade Cooper to potentially play against the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup.
The 33-year-old Cooper, who has not played for the Wallabies since 2017, is one of the most polarising figures in Australian rugby. Some observers salivate over his exquisite skills, others despair at the flaws in his game.
Cooper was initially brought into the Wallabies squad to provide emergency cover in case training numbers were affected by Covid-19 restrictions, but no one is ruling out the prospect of him actually playing against the All Blacks, which is quite remarkable.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. James O’Connor has been ruled out of the first Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park on 7 August and beyond because of the groin injury which kept him out of the recent France series. Back-up No 10 Noah Lolesio performed reasonably well in the Wallabies’ 2-1 Test series victory over France, but what would Rennie do if the young Brumbies playmaker was injured?
Did Rennie seek out former Wallabies playmakers Bernard Foley or Kurtley Beale? Like Cooper, Foley has been playing in Japan, while Beale is playing for French club Racing 92. Foley and Beale were certainly eligible, but were they required or available? At home in Brisbane on a break from his Japanese club Kintetsu Liners Cooper, it seems, was in the right place at the right time.
Rennie named 42 players in the Wallabies training squad last Sunday, almost three starting XVs, surely enough to cover for injuries at training, Covid-19 or not. Cooper was added to the squad the following day and Rennie confirmed the former Queensland Reds five-eighth will travel to Auckland with the Wallabies on Friday.
If Cooper plays against the All Blacks, many will see it as a retrograde step. But Rennie spoke so highly of Cooper’s experience and his “innovative” rugby brain that it sounded very much like he will compete with Lolesio for the gold No 10 jersey. Lolesio, Rennie said, had grown in the France series, but he was only at the “foot of the hill”.
Perhaps Lolesio’s inexperience is something Rennie is concerned about heading into a Test at Eden Park where the Wallabies have not win since 1986. It is difficult to imagine Rennie could not have found another five-eighth among the original squad. Was utility back Reece Hodge or centre Matt Toomua considered as a potential starting five-eighth?
Both have played No 10 for the Wallabies. Toomua is a solid playmaker, but he has struggled with form and injury this year for both the Melbourne Rebels and the Wallabies. Hodge’s season has been interrupted by injury, but he played strongly when he came on as a replacement winger early in the third Test against France. Perhaps Rennie has other plans for Hodge as a starting winger or fullback.
Many observers would like to see Wallabies and Brumbies winger Tom Wright given an opportunity at five-eighth or inside-centre. Wright played five-eighth for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles in the NRL and certainly has the skills to play the position in rugby.
Australia’s other emerging No 10s, Will Harrison and Ben Donaldson, were omitted from the Wallabies’ training squad. There are reports they would not have been able to make it to New Zealand, presumably because of the Covid outbreak in Sydney. In a crisis Rennie turned to Cooper, which may become the defining moment of his Wallabies coaching career. Whether it is a good or bad moment remains to be seen.
Rennie has been reluctant to bring back too many players from overseas, preferring to select local talent, but there were stronger candidates than Cooper. Why is Japan-based centre Samu Kerevi with the Australian sevens team at the Tokyo Olympics when he could be playing for the Wallabies? And what about backrower Sean McMahon?
The Wallabies showed a lot of courage and commitment to defeat France, but they have to remember it was not a full-strength French side. The step up from France B or C to New Zealand A will be gigantic. The area of most concern for the Wallabies against the All Blacks may well be in a position they feel they have well-covered – the second row.
Matt Philip and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto played strongly against France, while Darcy Swain was a revelation. Rennie strengthened the locking stocks with the addition of Izack Rodda. But do the Wallabies possess locks who can compete with the world class All Blacks trio of Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett?
Australia’s best second-rowers Rory Arnold and Will Skelton are playing in France. If the current crop do not measure up against the All Blacks, Rennie will have to find a way to bring Arnold and Skelton back to the Wallabies, assuming they want to come. If the Wallabies do not front up, up front, against the All Blacks, it will not matter who plays five-eighth, Quade Cooper or anyone else.