Could Quade Cooper make it through to the 2023 World Cup? “Of course he could,” said Wallabies coach Dave Rennie after seeing the 33-year-old playmaker enjoy a Hollywood ending to his long awaited return on the Gold Coast.
Rennie deserves credit for bringing Cooper in from the cold ahead of the Bledisloe Cup. There might be a little part of the coach that regrets not using him earlier in those games with Noah Lolesio fading in the furnace after an excellent series against France.
But even when Cooper was named last Friday to play against the Springboks, it was with the sense that he is merely a placeholder for the almost fit again James O’Connor. How could Rennie drop Cooper now?
On Sunday night Cooper brought a calm efficiency to the role, along with flawless goalkicking. But off the field he brings so much more to a sport that was waiting for fire to be lit within.
Those who doubt Cooper’s status as the biggest name in Australian rugby should pick up their papers this morning, scan the sports websites and get back to us with the last time one of the game’s players made this kind of impact.
Here’s what Dave Rennie and Michael Hooper had to say after Sunday’s game
“We have a structure how we wanted to play and I thought he was excellent,” Rennie said of Cooper. “He implemented things really well and was really clear. Credit to him.
“He’s got his detail down and being able to operate under pressure against the world champions is a hell of an effort.”
Asked if Cooper could play at the World Cup, Rennie had a sly dig at the Boks.
“He’s be a young fella if he was in the Springbok team,” Rennie joked. “Of course he could. But we’re not thinking too far ahead at this stage and neither is he.
“He was excited to get an opportunity and delivered big time. We’ll reassess and see how things go. I know he’s keen and available for the rest of the year and we’ll make a call beyond that.”
Rennie said he was proud of his team’s performance, and happy with their execution. A week ago he was visibly angry in Perth as he watched them make critical errors against the All Blacks.
“You play a side like [South Africa] you have got to dig deep,” said Rennie. “There’s a lot of collisions.
“Our work ethic was outstanding. We knew where they were coming. They’re very direct, they love playing without the ball so they were going to put a lot of ball in the air and I think we we are smart.
“We kicked appropriately, we played a fair bit of territory and got rewarded at the right end of the field.
“It’s a start. We’re not going to get carried away with this. It showed huge character and we’re proud of that.
“But we’ve got three more games coming up in the series and I’m confident the Springboks will be keen to reverse things next Saturday. So we’re mindful of that but we’re excited to play against the best teams in the world.”
Rennie said Tate McDermott had been replaced by Nic White because he was suffering an injured shin.
“It was quite noticeable late in the first half where he was struggling to get to the breakdown quickly. So we made that call at halftime.
“We normally go on with a bit of an idea around when we might sub some guys, but mostly, it’s game dependent. We were really rapt with the effort we got off the bench.”
Rennie wouldn’t bite on the 28 penalties blown by English referee Luke Pearce. At times it seemed Pearce, with his frequent and lengthy chats with the TMO, was running a refeering course.
“I really like Luke as a referee, had him a number of times when I was over in Europe,” Rennie said. “We’ll obviously we’ll have a close look at the game and give feedback directly to him.”
South Africa scored three tries to one, and all from rolling mauls, an area Rennie said would occupy some time ahead of next week’s game.
“We’ll tweak a few things this week,” he said. “You only need one person getting their role wrong and you can get hurt by a team like South Africa. So we’ve got to be better.”
But ultimately Hooper’s perfect eight from eight with the boot saw Australia clinch a close one – just as they did twice in the series against France.
“It’s huge,” said Rennie, joking about the big chance that Michael Hooper and Reece Hodge messed up that “if Hoops threw a dummy, we might not have needed a penalty late in the game.”
“There’s a lot of character in this group which is why we’re incredibly disappointed with the All Blacks series,” said Rennie. “We played a lot of good footy in there and had situations where, we just needed to be a bit a little bit more clinical and we could hurt them.”
Hooper equalled George Gregan’s record of 59 games as Wallabies captain on Sunday, a feat all but overshadowed on the night by Cooper.
“I thought he was calm and making good decisions around game calling,” Hooper said of the No.10.
“When the ebbs and flows of the game came, he was a really good person to call on to give us a bit of direction and lead us down the right path.
“It was really pleasing to have him out there and a great story for him. I was so happy for him that he’s able to have a game like that for Australia.”
Hooper said Australia played “smart”.
“We got down to their zone and we took points a couple of times and we built a score there today.
“It came down to the wire, which I think a lot of games tend to with South Africa and the way they play.
“I think we’ve got a lot more in us in the way that we can move the ball round and receive some of their kicks and what we can do to try and manipulate that. What we know is that when we go in next week it’s going to be a level up again, so we’re savouring this one for the moment.
Asked if the game was a “nice reminder” of the physicality South Africans bring to rugby, Hooper responded: “Absolutely. There’s some mountains of men in their team, and they just keep coming off the bench.
“That was a really South African style of game and they play that to the death, they lean into it more and more as the game goes on.
“You can’t shy away from the physicality they’re going to bring to the game. And we know that that’s going to go up again, next week.
“So we’re pleased with how we ripped into them tonight. I think we can be better in the maul side of things. We had a couple cracks and tried to pinch a few. But in terms of the game next week, it’s got to be levelled up there. ”
Here’s how the Springboks reacted
The Boks conceded 11 penalties – seven of which were in range for Cooper, and played for 20 minutes with only 14 players after Siya Kolisi and Willie le Roux were yellow carded. Australia, also lost two players to yellows.
“Poor discipline cost us – 23 points off the kicking tee (for the Wallabies) summed it up,” said South African coach Jacques Nienaber.
“In the first 20 minutes, I thought we dominated and had control over the game, and we were unable to do this in the last 20 minutes.
“We did well to come back late in the game and then we lost the match because we conceded a penalty. That said, Australia played well and they deserved the win.”
Nienaber said his team squandered two chances to score additional tries, as well as missing four out of their eight shots at goal.
“Without taking anything away from Australia, I don’t think we were great today,” said Nienaber.
“There were opportunities for us to score two more tries and we didn’t finish them. It was not a polished performance. We’ll have a look at the game, and we’ll have to fix those things and improve our discipline.”
Springbok captain Siya Kolisi was asked if being in quarantine for two weeks had any effects on the Boks.
“We’ll never use not being ready as an excuse – when we step onto the field, we have to be ready,” said Kolisi.
“I thought we prepared well this week, but our discipline wasn’t good. The Wallabies played well. This is a hard place to come and win.
“We didn’t play the way we wanted to on the day, and their plan worked better than ours in certain areas.”