Dawn is the day-time of the beagle. As the first shafts of sunlight splinter the darkness, shards of pink, blood-orange and crimson jagging up into the sky, she looks up expectantly. It is time to give the dog her first two-hour walk across the surrounding farmland.
She will stop at certain fields, a witness to the seasonal changes which see sheep grazing, or soybeans or carob growing in the same familiar fields. At other times, they will simply be left empty, to rest and recover their balance. The beagle is watchful and attentive, and she seems to understand the cycle at some silent, instinctive level.
A World Cup year in rugby resembles the crop cycle. Traditionally it is the year of gathering up playing assets, managing the workloads of all your key players and maintaining the right balance in their ‘nutrients’ of work, rest and play. How you realise those objectives in the months leading up to the tournament itself has huge bearing on its final result.
Farmers have been practising crop rotation ever since biblical times, cycling different crops through one field or leaving it fallow.
The Israelites of ancient times even observed a ‘Sabbath of the Land’ enshrined in Mosaic Law as Shmita, resting a field from the growth of crops entirely every seventh year:
“The land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God’s sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards.” (Leviticus 25)
The scientific benefits of crop rotation are well established, from micro improvements in soil quality and better weed and pest control, to the macro climate effect of a greater uptake of atmospheric carbon, which helps fight against the spectre of radical climate change.
World Cup year is rugby’s version of that rest period, when the balance between the number of games and the amount of rest and recovery becomes especially important, along with the conditioning programs which create the right kind of ‘nutrients’ to feed your chosen style of play in the tournament.
Some countries will find it harder to engineer that rotation than others. In England and France, where the priorities of club and country often jostle up against one another, the process will be more difficult than in more cohesive (to use Ben Darwin’s Gain-line Analytics term) rugby nations like New Zealand and Ireland.
Some of my previous articles during the off-season have examined how Australian rugby might profitably bring some outlying assets – like Nic White at Exeter, Will Skelton at Saracens and James O’Connor at Sale – back into the fold in time for the World Cup.
Rugby Australia has started 2019 on the front foot by finding work for three of its top players who lay fallow for the whole of 2018 – James Slipper at the Brumbies, Karmichael Hunt at the Waratahs and Quade Cooper at the Melbourne Rebels.
All three made substantial positive contributions to their teams over the weekend. The signs are there that Slipper will offer a genuine challenge to Scott Sio for the starting job in Canberra, while Hunt and fellow returnee Adam Ashley-Cooper formed a solid, defensively durable centre partnership at Brookvale Oval.
If there were promising greens shoots of growth in their performances, they were still overshadowed by Quade Cooper’s footballing exhibition in the Rebels’ win over the Brumbies.
The Brumbies were Australia’s top defensive side in Super Rugby 2018, but despite some typical early-season scrappiness the Rebels managed to score five tries away from home. They could easily have had nine or ten but for some rudimentary errors near the Brumbies’ goal-line.
Looking lean, hungry and revitalised after an empty 2018, Cooper was at the centre of most of the good things for Melbourne, and his renewed halves partnership with Will Genia – they have played together for the Wallabies on 35 occasions – still looks a potent, instinctive combination.
With Reece Hodge to come back into the reckoning in the centres, head coach Dave Wessels has a chance to put together the most balanced backline in the Australian Conference.
If Cooper is to truly to make it back to the big time, all the way to a green and gold jersey, he had to start by proving he could find a place to defend in the backs.
That spot turned out to be at fullback from the lineout, and in the backfield from most other phase situations:
Cooper will come up outside Marika Koroibete if play goes wide to the sideline on the early phases.
Quade made two important try-saving tackles on Tevita Kuridrani in this role, one at the start of the game, the other near the end:
In both cases, Cooper was an effective last line of defence and able to bring down a much bigger and more powerful man. He also reacted to opposition movement accurately, suggesting that defending the backfield space and mopping up line-breaks is his most effective role on D.
When he defended in the front line from scrums, Henry Speight was able to slip through the seam between Cooper and Genia on the first phase:
As a backfield defender, Cooper also has the bonus of a wide-angle view of the field. Midway through the second period, he returned a Brumbies relieving clearance with added extras, pinning the home side down in coffin corner:
He also ran the ball back effectively, and the character of one his runs brings us to the crux of the article:
A neat spin move beats the first tackler, and after that breach has been made Cooper stays completely square to the defence. By keeping the ball in both hands and his shoulders north-south, he commits defenders to plant for the tackle automatically, even if on this occasion the no-look pass doesn’t find the target.
In previous times, Quade Cooper has often been criticised for running laterally rather than straight, but in my experience a first receiver will tend to adjust to what the coach requires of him.
Dave Wessels’ preferred mode of offence is similar to Warren Gatland’s at Wasps back in the day: short passes with receivers hitting the ball flat on the gain-line, instantaneous ruck ball and rolling waves of forwards coming around the corner at a speed the defence cannot match.
Cooper has had to reinvent himself to fit the pattern:
He takes a short pass – no more than ten metres – from Will Genia and hits the line straight and hard, with passing options to either side:
If the Rebels can win quick ball, their attackers are already in place for the next phase, while two key Brumby defenders are either running backwards towards their own goal-line, or shifting out laterally to find a new position.
The longer version of what Dave Wessels envisions for the Rebels attack occurred just before half-time:
All the pieces fall into place. Quade Cooper hits the ball flat and hard, no more than seven metres away from Genia at the base of the scrum. The Rebels win instant ruck ball and the same micro-disorganisation in the second phase defence is already there.
In the second clip, Angus Cottrell is already running at an inviting space between a forward (Rory Arnold) and the last back (Henry Speight) on third phase, with room to offload and grant a simple overlap score – one which was incorrectly disallowed for a knock-on – for Marika Koroibete in the left corner.
The little detail of staying square to the inside defence makes an exponential difference, the further out the ball goes towards the sideline:
The delayed drift cannot fill in all of the gaps on the edge of the field.
Cooper finally got the reward the detail of his excellent attacking alignment deserved in the build-up to the Rebels go-ahead score in the 49th minute:
At the critical moment, no fewer than five Brumbies defenders have been drawn to Cooper. He is playing with his shoulders square and the ball in two hands out in front of him, passing across his body rather than turning and running towards the receiver. That gives the Rebels attackers out wide the crucial split seconds they need to convert numbers into a break.
World Cup year is a time of good husbandry. It is a time to gather your playing and coaching assets in one place, to get the balance of hard work, play and R&R exactly right. To come to the big tournament fresh, relaxed and focused on the task ahead.
Although a number of potentially valuable Wallaby assets are still plying their trade abroad, Rugby Australia has made a good start by re-harnessing the talents lost to the game in 2018 – James Slipper, Karmichael Hunt and Quade Cooper.
All are capable of playing at Wallaby level again in this year, re-energised by their fallow 2018. With Genia and Cooper in the halves, the Melbourne Rebels have a chance to assemble the most potent backline in the Australian Conference.
The demands of Dave Wessels’ offence have brought a breath of fresh air to Cooper’s attacking play, and they could yet catapult him back into Wallaby contention.
He stands flat and short to the halfback. He attacks the gain-line directly with his shoulders square and the ball in two hands, with viable options inside and out. He can pass all the way across his body without turning in the direction of the pass, and he can do it going left or going right.
He has shown he is prepared to put his body on the line in defence. It is a heady mix of abilities.
The big question now is whether Australia’s new coaching and decision-making group, shorn of Stephen Larkham, can envision Quade’s return to the big time all the way to September 2019, and the World Cup in Japan.