Wallabies’ coach with conviction and talismanic outhalf leading way back to top
With McKenzie at the helm and Cooper his chief strategist, Australia are in good hands
Quade Cooper of Australia hands off Dylan Hartley of England at Twickenham earlier this month
It was the most compelling press conference of the Lions tour, the most compelling match prior to the first test and it revolved around Quade Cooper and Ewen McKenzie.
The Queensland Reds were denuded of their Wallabies’ contingent, but Cooper wasn’t one of them, while McKenzie’s candidature to succeed Robbie Deans was an open secret.
Technically, there was still the possibility that Deans might include the errant Cooper as one of his six additional players for the test series. But in reality even if Cooper had scored and converted a hat-trick of tries, guided the Reds to a famous triumph and thrown in a few somersaults between the posts, Deans was not for budging.
In a sense you could understand Deans’ point of view given Cooper’s highly public critique of the Wallabies’ “toxic environment” with Deans in charge the year before. Reputedly, some of his erstwhile Wallabies teammates were not too keen on embracing Cooper’s return either.
Rather pointedly, it seemed, McKenzie even made Cooper captain for that Reds game and declared himself “a fan of Quade”. And far from shirking the media the two men faced them side by side two days before the game.
In that laconic way of his, Cooper was impressive, and also spoke of the belief his provincial coach had in him, and how his only concern was the Queensland Reds colours he had worn all season.
If he didn’t make the Walabies’ squad, he said, “it’s not as if I won’t be a happy person. I’m enjoying my life. I’ve got a great family, great coach, great team-mates and I’m playing the Lions tomorrow, and I live in a great country. There is nothing to be sad about.”
The Reds, billed as Quade Cooper and the Lion Tamers, swung from the hip; McKenzie giving Cooper licence to run the ball from everywhere with a high tempo, high-risk game on the gain line. And but for one marginally forward pass he might well have instigated one length of the pitch try. The Suncorp Stadium loved it.
Even then, had Cooper mixed an element of pragmatism one wonders what might have happened. But although they may have built up more of a lead than the 7-3 advantage Luke Morahan’s try gave them, they could never sustain such a tempo.
When McKenzie duly succeeded Deans after the Lions’ series, one suspected it would only be a matter of time before Cooper was reinstated. After a spell on the bench, he has become the Wallabies’ playmaker again in his own inimitable style. McKenzie has even given Cooper the additional responsibility of the vice-captaincy behind the impressively articulate Ben Mowen – whose leadership abilities had been detected by White at the Brumbies after Mowen had been released by the Waratahs.
Cooper has parked his ego to embrace the role and the team ethic, and with James O’Connor also having moved on, the Wallabies are again a tight-knit unit.
One Irish forward famously observed that not only did the opposition not know what his outhalf was going to do next, neither did his teammates. Yet McKenzie embraces this trait in Cooper’s make-up as a positive, not least as he places huge value on unpredictability.
Turning the corner
Cooper’s dodgy defence – which appears to have improved – has been hidden at the back. But this is turned into a strength in utilising his counterattacking game in tandem with maximising Israel Folau’s freakish talents at fullback rather than wing.
There was evidence of a corner being turned when the Wallabies ran in seven tries against Argentina in Rosario; one sweeping sequence of passes across the pitch highlighting their skill levels as every pass went in front of the receiver without a stride being broken.
To come within eight points of the All Blacks, scoring three tries and conceding four, in Dunedin was a hell of a performance. Granted, they could and probably should have beaten England but in the second half they failed to score a point and conceded 14.
Admittedly, three big calls all went against Australia. But the nature of the defeat highlighted the mental fragility of a side that has perhaps just become too used to losing. As Ireland did in the World Cup at Eden Park, the English forwards applied ferocious pressure on Will Genia.
As in Eden Park, in their determination to play a running game they were perhaps guilty of playing too much rugby in their own half. But with McKenzie at the helm, and Cooper his strategist in chief, they are clearly set on this path. Cooper is not the world’s most accomplished kicking number 10 – he almost gives the impression that it bores him a little bit – and against England he also missed three three-pointers at key junctures in the match.
This, it could be argued, is the bread-and-butter stuff of a test outhalf but there are days when he lands everything and his footwork, vision, timing of the pass and exploitation of space are as good as any outhalf on the planet.
Cooper was creator in chief of three of the Wallabies’ seven tries in Turin last Saturday – which means they’ve scored 18 tries in four successive away games against Argentina, New Zealand, England and Italy (while admittedly conceding 11). How many teams could do that? In all of this, McKenzie is nailing his colours to the Cooper mast, and as with his boyhood hero Carlon Spencer, the world of rugby would be a duller place without Cooper.