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Why Rennie will pull the trigger on O'Connor at 15

Roar Guru
13th September, 2021
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Roar Guru
13th September, 2021
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Quade Cooper’s iconic performance on Saturday evening is more than a personal redemption story.

That 80 minutes made Cooper all but un-droppable this year. He now must be a better than even chance to start at ten in the next World Cup.

It also has far-ranging implications for the make-up of Dave Rennie’s side.

Given Cooper had not played a Test match in over four years, he showed incredible poise against the world champions. Aside from a couple of early fumbles, his ball control was excellent.

Perhaps where he stood out the most was in his ability to take the right options. He did not kick aimlessly or for the sake of it, unlike his celebrated opposite number.

When he ran it was because nothing was on out wide. There were no speculative cut-outs like the ones that had marred his previous record at this level or the Wallabies’ Bledisloe series.

Quade Cooper

(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

The roles played by Len Ikitau and particularly Samu Kerevi should not be understated in terms of their contribution to Cooper’s night. Time and again, the Wallabies’ centres gave Cooper outlets when the pressure was on and straightened the line when it needed straightening.

To now have Kerevi, Hunter Paisami and Ikitau as options at 12 and 13 is sure to take a weight off Dave Rennie’s mind.

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More than that, the re-emergence of Quade Cooper must certainly end Matt Toomua’s international career. He has been a great servant of the game but his time has now come and gone. There is simply no room or need for him in the Wallabies’ side anymore.

Noah Lolesio, Reece Hodge and James O’Connor are now all waiting in the wings to play ten if need be.

Noah Lolesio will learn his craft and bide his time as he should have done, as a squad member. He isn’t ready for Test rugby and that isn’t his fault. Being introduced against an up-and-coming French side before playing three Tests against the All Blacks was less than ideal. In contrast, Cooper debuted in 2009 against Italy.

Hodge will go back to what he does best, covering multiple positions across the back line and kicking 60-metre bombs when needed.

Moving forward and in terms of selection, the most interesting and consequential of the three by far is James O’Connor.

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The debate has long raged about where O’Connor is best suited to play Test rugby. Some say flyhalf, others say inside centre, but I say at fullback.

As well as being very solid under the high ball and the best tactical kicker in the Wallabies’ set-up, playing fullback allows O’Connor to join the line at first or second receiver at will.

His presence at the back will allow the Wallabies to select a bullocking inside centre in Kerevi or Paisami but also have a second playmaker on the field to start a game.

Lets’ face it, Quade Cooper and James O’Connor are the most dangerous ball players in Australia and that is not about to change before 2023.

Poor old Tom Banks is a classic example of someone who shines at provincial level but is overcome by Test rugby. His kicking, catching and running all leave far too much to be desired and were shown up badly against the Boks.

The other option at 15, Jordan Petaia, does not have the kicking game O’Connor has and is a poor distributor. He is much better suited to the wing or even outside centre when fit.

James O'Connor of the Wallabies runs the ball

(Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

O’Connor is the answer at fullback and I have a hunch that Dave Rennie knows that already.

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It is very interesting to look at how Dave Rennie built the Chiefs into a rugby powerhouse after years of under-performance and inconsistency.

That side was built around Aaron Cruden, a similar player to Quade Cooper at ten. A certain Damian McKenzie then arrived and played 15. The comparisons between McKenzie and O’Connor are also easy to make.

Rennie then combed the Chiefs’ catchment areas for good players who were also good men.

Back then those players included Cruden and McKenzie as well as Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick. They had electric backs behind a hard, no-frills pack.

Now it is a reformed Cooper and O’Connor together with Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon. The eye-catching performance of the Force’s Feleti Kaitu’u, which is worthy of its own article, makes him one to add to that list.

With young hungry players like Fraser McReight, Harry Wilson, Jake Gordon, Lolesio and Petaia filling out the wider squad together with veterans like Pete Samu and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, the future looks better than it did a week ago.

Could history be repeating itself? Could Dave Rennie have a plan? I sure hope so.

Potential Wallabies World Cup team
1-8: Angus Bell, Feleti Kaitu’u, Taniela Tupou, Izack Rodda, Rory Arnold, Lachie Swinton, Michael Hooper, Rob Valetini
9-15: Tate McDermott, Quade Cooper, Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi, Len Ikitau, Andrew Kellaway, James O’Connor
Reserves: Brandon Paenga-Amosa, James Slipper, Allan Alaalatoa, Matt Philip, Sean McMahon, Nic White, Hunter Paisami, Reece Hodge

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