“He’s got points in ‘im” is the short sales pitch for why Quade Cooper’s Wallabies career might not be over just yet.
Of course, it’s premature to be dwelling on the idea that Quade – allegedly culturally-questionable in a rugby kulcha kinda way – might be Australian rugby’s saviour a year out from the World Cup.
But this week, at least his path was cleared to play for the Wallabies again when his Super Rugby return was confirmed by signing with the Melbourne Rebels.
It ended a bitter last year at the Queensland Reds after coach Brad Thorn told him he was wanted and exiled Cooper to Brisbane club rugby despite being paid more than $600,000.
But following the Wallabies’ horrible Rugby Championship showing, it’s worth considering what needs to change to turn the world’s number seven side into World Cup contenders.
There’s plenty wrong with the Wallabies, who as we’ve heard and read too often, have won three of their last 11 Tests to become somewhat of a punching bag for Australia’s fed-up rugby fans.
Perhaps improving the appalling lineout and quickly finding a few front-five bruisers would be the best solution to pulling them out of a big rut.
But what else is lacking? Points. The Wallabies were impotent during the Rugby Championship, clearly the worst of the four teams with the ball.
Australia’s 16 tries over six games compared to Argentina’s 18, South Africa’s 21 and New Zealand’s 33. Alarmingly, five of the Wallabies’ tries came in the second half of their comeback win over the Pumas in Salta.
Cooper’s defensive frailties have been well documented and he’s pretty reliable for a blunder and a brain fade. But he can also break the line and provide the unpredictability that’s needed to break down well-drilled Test sides.
Bernard Foley seems to have become too robotic at five-eighth. Kurtley Beale had a crack in the No.10 Wallabies jersey this year and couldn’t spark much.
So, is Cooper the answer? One could argue that Beauden Barrett or Damien McKenzie would find it hard to get an attack firing if they were behind a forward pack that’s consistently outmuscled like the Wallabies. It’s usually simplistic to believe that one player, especially a 30-year-old could turn things around, but why not roll the dice with Cooper?
His move to the Rebels means he’s going to be outside Wallabies halfback Will Genia and also combining with Test regulars Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete. Jack Maddocks and Sefa Naivalu are also well-credentialed members of a backline with plenty of potential.
So the Wallabies’ halves combination for 2019 would become competitive if Cooper starts well and impresses outside Genia. Remember, Genia and Cooper played together in Queensland’s Super Rugby title-winning season in 2011 and have combined many times at provincial and Test level.
Cooper will be highly motivated to make a last-ditch effort to make the World Cup squad, if only to give a middle finger to Thorn. The Rebels face the Reds at the end of March and early in May which will be worth making in the calendar given Quade’s chances of doing something stupid or stupendous. But it’s likely the decisive test will come within a month when Cooper takes on Foley in the Rebels’ matches against the Tahs in April and the end of May.
The upside for Cooper is that he’s been given a chance to once again push for a berth at the World Cup; the downside is that being a World Cup year, the Wallabies will only play an abbreviated Rugby Championship-Bledisloe Cup of four Tests leading into the tournament in Japan starting in September.
Michael Cheika will want to use the upcoming northern hemisphere tour to settle on combinations and get into the groove. That would be ideal. But he’s already stated that he’ll walk after the World Cup if the Wallabies don’t win it, so if the points don’t come in Europe then Cooper might just be worth a shot.
Does the apparent risk of Quade being a liability for team “culture” weigh down his chances with Cheika? Well unlike Thorn, Cheika doesn’t have the luxury of seeing out a three-year plan. He needs results now.
Unfortunately, Matt Toomua won’t be at the Rebels until he finishes his contract with Leicester in the English Premiership. That might be as late as early June – just two rounds out from the end of Super Rugby’s regular season.
If only that combination had time to flourish, the Genia-Cooper-Toomua link could be the Wallabies’ best option for the World Cup. It’s still a chance of happening even without seeing much of Toomua in a Rebels jersey. That could free Kurtley Beale to shift to fullback, where he’s been lethal, with the wingers Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty.
That would leave only the outside centre spot vacant in a formidable backline. Tevita Kuridrani? Or perhaps Folau if he goes well against the All Blacks in Yokohama on Saturday.
Cooper’s move to Melbourne, in any case, will hopefully mean Foley has some legitimate competition for his Wallabies’ number ten jersey and will push him to reach the kind of form he showed at the last World Cup.
The Wallabies lit it up with their second-half rampage in Salta but if Foley fails to get the Wallabies breaking the line more consistently over the next four Tests against New Zealand, Wales, Italy and England then Cooper’s odds of a Test return may start to shorten.