Wallabies bring in Cooper to add pace and flair against miserly Boks
The Wallabies can’t match the Boks’ power so they will look to run the world champions ragged when the sides clash in Gold Coast on Sunday.
Wallaby coach Dave Rennie didn’t say it publicly, but Finn Russell’s performance for the British & Irish Lions against the Springboks last month must have influenced the decision to select Quade Cooper at flyhalf.
Now 33, Cooper, a veteran of 70 Tests, has not played for the Wallabies in more than four years. But like Russell he brings attacking flair and vision to the flyhalf channel. And as Russell showed in his Third Test appearance off the bench against the Boks, that unpredictability can cause some problems.
Cooper will certainly be unpredictable but, unlike Russell, he is unlikely to be playing behind a pack that has gained parity with the Boks’ eight like the Lions forwards managed. The Wallaby pack just don’t look as if they will have the power to match the world champions and their “Bomb Squad”.
This does look like a panicky call from Rennie, who was quick to deny it. Cooper replaces Noah Lolesio, who has worn the number 10 shirt in Australia’s six Tests this year without much success.
“We’re basing selections on what we see,” Rennie told the media from the Wallabies’ Queensland base. “There’s certainly no panic, we’re trying to grow our game and we think he’s the right man to try and get us around the park.”
The phrase “get us around the park” is certainly an indication of the way the Wallabies will approach the match. They understand that going toe-to-toe with the Boks at set piece and in a kicking game will only result in one winner. They need to find other ways to win and in Cooper they believe they have found the silver bullet.
It’s a brave, some might even say reckless, call by Rennie, but his options are limited. Lolesio hasn’t been a success and needs a break while James O’Connor is just returning from a serious injury. Rennie doesn’t view Matt Toomua as a flyhalf option, leaving Cooper, despite his 1,571 days in the international wilderness, as the only viable option at this moment.
“We are under no illusions about what a great team the Wallabies are,” Bok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk said earlier this week, to raised eyebrows. The Wallabies have conceded 128 points in three games against the All Blacks in 2021. These Wallabies might not be as bad as some pundits have made out, but they are far from being a “great” team.
“Having watched their games and how close they have come to winning some of them, I think if a few things had gone their way and a few passes stuck there could have been different results,” De Klerk said.
“From my personal experience of playing in Australia, it is incredibly tough and it’s always a massive physical challenge. Adding to that, the way they play these days where they almost try to run you off your feet is going to test us defensively, so it will be a tough game.
“They are a bunch of proud guys from a proud country, so I think they’ll come out with everything they have. We know we are going to get the best out of them, and we know that if we don’t bring our best we’ll probably get a hiding in this game.
“We’ve spoken about it a lot this week, and the guys are ready for what lies ahead. We know it won’t be easy.”
Despite being world champions and recent Lions series winners, as well the reigning Rugby Championship holders, the Boks have not won a Test in Australia since 2013.
In that period the Boks have lost to some mediocre Wallaby sides in Australia and, even though on paper they start as favourites, there is no guarantee this will be a straightforward contest.
Tempo and pace on the ball will be the Wallaby mantra. With Cooper pulling strings alongside the promising new halfback Tate McDermott, they will try to bring in dangerous strike runners such as wing Marika Koroibete.
Although the Boks have only conceded five tries in six Tests this year, they have been stretched a few times. The Lions were not able to capitalise on the rare line breaks they made, but Koroibete and centre Samu Kerevi will be less likely to waste chances.
Conversely, the Wallabies will not have encountered anything like the Boks’ smothering defensive system, which has forced many teams into mistakes.
If there has been one consistent theme of the Wallaby performances this year, it’s that they undo a lot of good work with poor errors. The Boks punish mistakes better than most teams.
“Australia play with pace and tempo,” said Bok coach Jacques Nienaber as rationale for picking three loose forwards on the bench. “They have massive continuity and have an awesome skill set in stretching you from touchline to touchline. It is going to be a quick, high-tempo game.
“But we have been together for quite a while now and we are a lot more aligned. We were also fortunate that after 2019 we lost only three players. There is good continuity.”
The return of Duane Vermeulen slightly offsets the loss of Cheslin Kolbe to injury. Vermeulen’s return to Test rugby for the first time in 680 days since the 2019 World Cup final is good news but he will be rusty after a two-month ankle injury lay-off.
Vermeulen though, is one of those rare players that seems to find his best form quickly, even after long absences from the game. But with three back rowers on the bench, Nienaber has covered the unlikely eventuality that Vermeulen has an off day.
The presence of Kwagga Smith and Marco van Staden on the wood, as well as hooker Malcolm Marx, the Boks’ breakdown armoury is well stocked to cause havoc for 80 minutes.
The Wallabies could win, but it would be a massive upset if they did against an almost full strength Boks, brimming with the confidence of four consecutive wins.
Australia: 15-Tom Banks, 14-Andrew Kellaway, 13-Len Ikitau, 12-Samu Kerevi, 11-Marika Koroibete, 10-Quade Cooper, 9-Tate McDermott, 8-Rob Valetini, 7-Michael Hooper, 6-Lachie Swinton, 5-Matt Philip, 4-Izack Rodda, 3-Allan Alaalatoa, 2-Folau Fainga’a, 1-Angus Bell
Replacements: 16-Feleti Kaitu’u, 17-James Slipper, 18-Taniela Tupou, 19-Rob Leota, 20-Pete Samu, 21-Nic White, 22-Reece Hodge, 23-Jordan Petaia
15-Willie le Roux, 14-Sbu Nkosi, 13-Lukhanyo Am, 12-Damian de Allende, 11-Makazole Mapimpi, 10-Handre Pollard, 9-Faf de Klerk, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Franco Mostert, 6-Siya Kolisi (captain), 5-Lood de Jager, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Frans Malherbe, 2-Bongi Mbonambi, 1-Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16-Malcolm Marx, 17-Ox Nche, 18-Vincent Koch, 19-Marco van Staden, 20-Kwagga Smith, 21-Jasper Wiese, 22-Herschel Jantjies, 23-Damian Willemse. DM