SPIRO: Horwill, Genia, Cooper: They’re baaccckkk!! And Kurtley’s out

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    What a difference a week makes. Last week the partisan Queensland rugby media were writing off Quade Cooper for poor kicking, poor tackling, poor passing, poor running, you name it they claimed it.

    Now after guiding the Reds to a terrific victory over the Bulls, with help from James Horwill and Will Genia, Cooper is back in favour.

    What this tells us is that form is a moveable feast but class is permanent.

    I have been a constant critic of Cooper as a number 10. I have also been a constant advocate of his rugby skills and from time to time have indulged myself by calling him the ‘Paginini of the Pass.’

    I have argued that Cooper’s best position in Test rugby may well be on the wing, as a Shane Williams/David Campese striker and playmaker inside the red zone.

    There are two problems with Cooper as a number 10. One of them is his tackling, or to be more precise his reluctance to make effective tackles.

    The other problem is that his rugby genius is more off-the-cuff, rather like his hero Carlos Spencer, rather than organising his team’s attack around a well thought-out game plan.

    So with Cooper, in the past, there have been too many magic passes either attempted and sometimes achieved in terrible positions for the receiver.

    This sort of pass-the-parcel play can work even in the high-tempo stress of Super Rugby. But in the even more stressful atmosphere of Test rugby disaster lies, as it did during the 2011 RWC, when the playmaker keeps on putting players under even more pressure from his off-loads than he is under.

    This season I’ve noticed that Cooper has been under-playing his hand for the Reds. While some commentators found this to be a sign of a loss of confidence, I reckon that it is a sign of maturity.

    The reason why Dan Carter is rated as arguable New Zealand’s greatest fly-half is that he underplays his hand, distributes, takes the tackle when he has to and then strikes when the opposition least expects it.

    Cooper who was brought up in New Zealand unfortunately did not get much rugby coaching there. The New Zealand system has always been for fly halves to be distributors in the main who can strike when the opportunity presents itself.

    The flyhalf who is an out-and-out striker like Spencer is generally not favoured. Even though Spencer was a more talented number 10 than Andrew Mehrtens, Mehrtens was more often preferred to him because he was a better distributor.

    Getting back to Cooper, he is playing now more like Carter and remember Carter’s game was developed and matured under Robbie Deans.

    My guess is that the new Cooper will interest Deans much more as a starting number 10 much more than even the 2011 and 2012 models.

    And this brings us to the second aspect of the Cooper dilemma. His ineffective tackling. Deans has stated that unless Cooper plays in the line, he won’t be considered for the Wallabies number 10 position.

    The good news here is that this season Cooper has made some effective tackles. Two in particular against the Bulls helped the Reds to pull off their terrific victory.

    I call it a terrific victory because the Reds haven’t played well this season, even though they’ve kept winning most of their matches.

    Sides that are slightly off form can be very vulnerable to the basic kick/chase/pressure/penalty game of the Bulls. And the Reds came through the game for a victory that was in balance until the last play of the match.

    Part of Cooper’s more assured play this week and last week is due to the presence of Will Genia back again after an injury.

    Let’s be emphatic here. Genia is far and away the best halfway in the world and when his career is over I have no doubt that he is going to be ranked in the pantheon of the greatest Wallaby halfbacks in the modern era that include Connor, Hipwell, Farr-Jones, Gregan (in that order in my opinion).

    Genia has a great pass: he can run brilliantly: his defence is strong: he takes the high ball expertly.

    The only fault in his game is that he can be rattled a bit and then is inclined to kick away possession (as he did in the big matches in the 2011 RWC tournament) with stupid chip kicks.

    But the space he creates enables (or should enable) playmakers like Cooper to do what they should do and that is run the game according to the team’s game plan and the situation of the game.

    It was good too to see Horwill come back so strongly. The Reds and the Wallabies have missed a strong presence at number 2 in the lineout, pushing in the scrums and making bursts in open play.

    Horwill gets his hands on the ball a lot. This is a sign, in my view, of a tight forward who reads the game well and puts himself into positions where he can use his bulk and (in the case of Horwill) his bulk to good advantage.

    The other outstanding win from an Australian perspective of the weekend was the Waratahs victory snatched in the last minutes of play against the Blues.

    Nothing gives confidence to a side which is lacking in it than sneaking wins at the death stroke. And once again, the Waratahs came back from a big deficit at half-time for go over the top of the Blues who had shot most of their ammunition in the first half.

    Whatever Michael Cheika tells his players at half-time should be bottled and used by, say, the Wallabies when they are down after 40 minutes of play.

    The statistics of rugby say that the team that is in front at half-time will almost always win the win. The All Blacks, for instance, win something like 90 per cent of their matches when they are leading at half-time.

    So the Waratahs have been making things difficult for themselves but not turning up to play in the first half. To their credit, they have tried to get back into the match by playing ball-in-hand rugby.

    They had five long sequences of play, for instance, when the Blues struggled to put together more than one sequence of more than five plays.

    They are beginning to learn, too, that the sequence play is a means to an end. It is not a means in itself. A lot of teams get stuck in the pattern of their sequences, and the Crusaders up to the last two matches, tend to be like this.

    Moving an opposition from one side of the field to the other is the means. The end is to get mismatches to exploit.

    Carter is an expert in doing this, and in the last two matches he has regathered his mojo and the Crusaders are beginning to show the benefit of this. He is not going to South Africa with the Crusaders because his wife is due to give birth to their first child.

    How the Crusaders get on against the Stormers and Sharks, two extremely difficult matches, will probably decide whether they will make the finals or not.

    The Waratahs number 10 Brendan Foley, a Randwick player with oodles of confidence, is becoming more and more comfortable in the role of playmaker for the Waratahs in their new/old style of keeping the ball in hand.

    If I were Cheika I’d give a call to his former team-mate the incomparable Mark Ella to do some one-on-one with Foley to develop his understanding on the art of seeing where the numbers are on either side of the ruck, where the convenient match-ups are and how to do the double-around, a manoeuvre that is frequently deadly and is under-used (except by the Chiefs Aaron Cruden) in modern rugby.

    What an irony that bad boy Quade Cooper shows every sign of pulling in his head and concentrating on his rugby while at the same time Kurtley Beale is involved (allegedly) in another incident that does no good for his reputation or his future as a Wallaby.

    This incident looks, on the face of it, to be a bad one. All the details will have to emerge. But if what happens is what media reports suggest what happened, we could be looking at no Kurtley for the British and Irish Lions tour.

    This blow, if it does fall, will be softened a great deal by the excellent current form being shown by the Reds stars, an unlikely good boy Cooper and Genia and Horwill both doing well what they have done in the past.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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