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Here is the Boy’s Own scenario facing Cooper. He has had a flightly first-class rugby career since coming into the Queensland Reds as a brilliant youngster. There are suspicions that he got his call to the Wallaby colours because he was born in New Zealand, and therefore eligible to play, if selected of course, for the All Blacks.
Sitting on the reserves bench he had watched the Wallabies try unsuccessfully for 71 minutes to shake off the persistent, well-coached (the South African master Nick Mallett) Azzurri. A few minutes before the Azzurri had missed an eminently kickable penalty to go into a 23 – 20 lead. Then the call comes from the coach, Robbie Deans, to take the field and make something happen.
The Wallabies get field position about 30m out from their opponent’s tryline. Matt Giteau, who played as if he hasn’t really recovered from his hammering in Hong Kong, set up an old Crusaders move involving a pass behind two forwards standing flat to an elusive running back.
Cooper broke wide, found a gap, raced through it, and then like a downhill skier swerving through the poles speed around and inside the mass covering defence. Try! Under the posts! Test saved.
Another penalty goal by Giteau gave the flattering scoreline of 30 -20. But it was a close-run thing, which raises the question: What went wrong with the Wallabies?
There is, of course, the matter of travelling from Hong Kong to Italy and having to play a Test against a strong and skillful Italian pack, one of the strongest in Test rugby, within seven days.
But this can hardly be offered as an excuse. We have to look at the Wallaby pack. They were frequently beaten to the ruck and maul by the Italians. This raises the matter of Phil Waugh as a starter. My feeling that whatever use he has now for the Wallabies, if any, must be off the bench as a type of closer-player.
The Wallaby scrum that the British scribes are pointing to as the weakness that will give England a victory at Twickenham had a mixed day, good at times and at other times it was overpowered.
The pack in general again conceded too many penalties for going off their feet. This time a northern hemisphere referee could not be blamed. Bryce Lawrence is a NZer and he found the same faults as Alan Lewis did last week.
The backs, especially early on when Berrick Barnes was at first five-eights, made a number of gaps with Stirling Mortlock, Timana Tahu and Digby Ioane smashing through the strong Italian defence. But there did not seem to be any fluency in converting the line-breaks to tries.
And once again, the back three (perhaps Ioane was an exception) showed a reluctance to run the ball back at the Azzurri, a team that defends solidly from set pieces but can be exposed when play fractures and the defensive line.
Talking about Tahu, who went off injured, there were problems once again with his defence against seemingly simple attacks down his defensive channel. The first Italian try was scored when a straightforward backline attack went right through Tahu’s sector with the centre shaking his head in bewilderment, rather like Al Baxter does when he picks himself off the ground after conceding another scrum penalty.
Waugh and Tahu won’t be playing against England, which leaves the set pieces for the Wallabies to worry about. The British rugby writers are adamant that a scrum-led England attack will demolish the Wallabies, despite the fact that England’s scrum and general forward play was less than impressive against a poor but game Pacific Islands side.
‘Unless England can add hard-core forwards in all three rows,’ Stephen Jones writes in The Sunday Times, ‘then they will simply be over-powered by at least two of the three South Hemisphere teams lying in wait for them.’
You don’t have to be a genius to work out who is the odd southern hemisphere team out of three: the Wallabies.
The best things about winning in an unattractive and unconvincing way as the Wallabies did against the Azzurri is that a win is a win as far as the records are concerned, and the team gets a chance to start again next week and play to a better potential than what it revealed on Saturday.
Hopefully Cooper won’t be required to produce another flash of winning magic. But I suppose there is some comfort in the fact that having done this once, he should be able to do it again.