As the next round of Super Rugby matches begin on Friday, it will be a moment of truth for Wallaby coach Robbie Deans. On June 5th he has to prepare a team to play Scotland and four days later the Wallabies take on the Six Nations champions – Wales. This would be a tough task for any side – Scotland will be no pushovers, and the memories of Samoa’s success last year still resonate with Wallaby supporters. It will be a real test of the Wallabies’ strength in depth. Avoiding injuries will be Deans’ main hope, but his most fervent prayers will be offered over Quade Cooper.
After the confirmation of O’Connor’s unavailability Deans has a problem over the selection of fly-half. So far Cooper has managed a careful 40 minutes for the Reds after his seven month injury lay-off. Because of the unfortunate groin injury to Cooper’s understudy, Ben Lucas; Cooper will have to front up against the Brumbies on a cold night in Canberra. The best Deans can hope for is that Cooper plays for an hour and stays whole.
Without doubt, Cooper is the enigmatic heartbeat of an exciting Wallaby back division. Since being capped at 20 in 2008, he has become almost indispensable. When he is on song he is one of the most accomplished rugby players in the world. He plays on the edge, dominating games with his daring running, audacious distribution and complete self-belief. This enables the Wallabies to play a high tempo game, counter attack with panache and rack up the points very quickly.
The issue with Cooper is that he can drift in and out of games. Occasionally he intimates that he has fallen out of love with rugby union and will join the NRL. Given his less than powerful tackling that might not be as easy as he might think. Apparently the ARU are not so sure, and have decided that Cooper is their main asset and have rewarded him with a massive contract. There is no doubt that Cooper is box office and that he puts bums on seats, yet to play him in the June series entails huge risks. Cooper might simply be not yet up to the intensity and pace of international rugby – although Horwill the skipper thinks so.
Even when fit he is prone to lapses of concentration – unforced errors, petulance, and a certain fragility in heavy traffic. His dismal performance against Ireland at 2011 RWC was more typical of his performances last season. Both Deans and McKenzie, his coach at the Reds tried to hide him as the loose player behind the defensive line but international teams soon worked this out and mercilessly exposed Cooper.
There can be no doubt that the Wallabies are a better side with a fit and motivated Quade Cooper on the field. There are precious few serious alternatives available; Berrick Barnes is going backwards, and might not even make the cut, and that leaves as the only other possibility, Kurtley Beale of the Rebels. He has been a revelation since taking over from the “departed” Cipriani and revitalised the attacking potency of his team. An outstanding full back, he has revelled in the opportunity to dictate play and appears to be a threat every time he has the ball in his hands. Whether Deans would be happy with such a maverick approach from his outside–half is doubtful.
The Brumbies against the Reds is always a highly charged game and Deans will be watching the game through his fingers this weekend wincing at every tackle and hit. Cooper as always, is confident that he is ready to play. Even after a 7 month lay-off and only 40 minutes game time, he is the best outside-half available to Australia.
Wales will be watching with interest – they are not coming to Australia to make up the numbers and if Cooper plays, he will be a target. This is just the type of situation Cooper thrives in, his chance to put the detractors in their places. Whatever Deans decides to do, it will be one of his most difficult decisions. Gets it wrong, and the Wallabies season could be over very quickly. Of course he could always give David Campese a call?