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Quade Cooper’s performance in the Wallabies’ memorable win over South Africa was arguably one of the greatest comebacks in Australian rugby history – but that was the easy part.
In the international wilderness for three years Cooper was recalled by coach Dave Rennie in a calculated gamble. The 33-year-old calmly executed the Wallabies’ game-plan, which revolved around tactical kicking, and landed eight goals from eight attempts, including a match-winning penalty on full-time.
But now Cooper’s road to redemption is about to become a lot harder. He had nothing to lose against the Springboks on the Gold Coast. Before the game he talked about how he learned there was more to life than football. That mindset alleviated pressure even in a Test against the world champions.
But by virtue of his outstanding showing, Cooper will be under greater pressure to perform again in Saturday’s return match in Brisbane. There were no expectations of Cooper on the Gold Coast, but expectations will be high at Suncorp Stadium, the scene of so many of his past triumphs with both the Queensland Reds and the Wallabies.
Has Cooper inadvertently made a rod for his own back?
In the build-up to the World Cup Cooper established himself as the Wallabies’ first-choice five-eighth and it looked as if the gold No 10 jersey would be his for as long as he wanted it. But a running battle with former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw saw Cooper labelled public enemy No 1 in New Zealand. The Kiwis booed him every time he touched the ball in the World Cup and he had an unhappy campaign.
As a result, former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans lost faith in him. Rather than becoming Australia’s long-term No 10, Cooper was in and out of the national team until his Test career seemed over in 2017. Queensland coach Brad Thorn also showed Cooper the door that year. With his career gone pear-shaped Cooper’s close friend Sonny Bill Williams reached out and taught him how to be a “better man” through dedication and hard work.
That “good, strong man” was the Cooper we saw play with so much composure on the Gold Coast last Sunday night and there are hopes in Australia he will adopt the same mentality on Saturday. Cooper is renowned for razzle dazzle, but he does not have to be the star of the show. He just needs to play the role assigned to him. If you take his goal-kicking heroics away, his effort against the Springboks was solid, but not spectacular.
Cooper underplayed his game, controlled the tempo, kicked the ball back to the Springboks, who preferred to play without it, and steered the Wallabies around the field. But Saturday’s game will be a tougher assignment, and not just for Cooper, but for the whole Wallabies team.
The Springboks take a lot of pride in being world champions and they will be determined to exact revenge on the Wallabies. It is possible the Springboks had one eye on their much-anticipated showdown with the All Blacks and perhaps took the Wallabies a little bit lightly. But they will be fully focused on Saturday. Another loss to the Wallabies will put them out of the running for the Rugby Championship and tarnish their hard-fought reputation.
The Springboks kicked the ball 38 times to the Wallabies’ 20 and it is difficult to see them deviate too much from the kick and chase game that has been so successful for them. But they might vary their strategy ever so slightly. The South Africans saw how effective blockbusting Wallabies inside-centre Samu Kerevi was at getting across the advantage-line and might be tempted to give their hard-running No 12 Damian de Allende similar opportunities.
The Wallabies seemed to anticipate this tactic last Sunday, but quickly re-adjusted their defensive line once it became apparent the Springboks were kicking away most of their possession. To beat the Springboks twice in a row the Wallabies will have to play much better – they certainly cannot afford to rely on the South Africans kicking only half of their attempts at goal again.
While the Wallabies managed to reduce their error rate, they still gave away silly penalties in the second-half, which almost cost them victory. After conceding three tries from rolling mauls, there is little doubt the Wallabies will be working hard on how to defend this trademark Springbok attacking weapon.
Contests between the Wallabies and the Springboks are usually tight affairs. The Australians must capitalise and every scoring opportunity. They only scored one try on the Gold Coast. Captain Michael Hooper should have put replacement back Reece Hodge away, but failed to draw the last defender and a try went begging. It could have been costly.