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ANALYSIS: Quade Cooper would have been concerned watching the Wallabies’ attack on the Spring Tour – this is why

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‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.’ So said Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

To lose one national rugby coach would be bad enough, but to shed two only 12 months before the World Cup looks suspiciously like a pattern.

Five months ago, Dave Rennie’s long-term comrade-in-arms Matt Taylor left the Wallaby coaching group by mutual consent. Now, Scott Wisemantel, Eddie Jones’ right-hand man throughout an era of great England success, has followed him out of the door.

‘Wisey’ himself cited family reasons for his departure.

“While this has been a very difficult decision, it’s one that’s best for me and my family at this point in time,” he said.

“The World Cup is the pinnacle of our sport and requires 100% commitment, and that’s something I’m unfortunately unable to give at the moment.

“I’ve loved being with this team under Dave and wish them all the best for their season and in the World Cup later this year.”

ANALYSIS: Quade Cooper would have been concerned watching the Wallabies’ attack on the Spring Tour – this is why

Dave Rennie needs a new attack coach after Scott Wisemantel resigned from the Wallabies. Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Rennie’s own response enlarged the shadow hanging over Wisemantel’s exit rather than dispersing it.

“Scott’s a top man and one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with,” he said.

“He’s hugely respected around the world, has a mountain of experience at international level and [he has] an incredible rapport with our players.

“While we did all we could to try and keep Scott, we respect his decision and wish him, Gabs and the girls all the best.

“He’s been a massive part of this group for the past three years and we’ll miss him.”

While Wisemantel’s stated reasons have to be respected, the timing for Australia’s head coach could not be more awkward.

Attack structure is notoriously the most painstaking and time-consuming aspect of play to develop, and eight months and five Test matches is too short a time-frame in which to make a serious attempt at it.

The majority of those who have been mentioned in dispatches as possible replacements – Rod Seib, Peter Hewat and Stephen Larkham – all have a Brumbies flavour and that is probably no coincidence. 

Rennie’s two principal supports at the start of his Wallaby tenure were Taylor and Wisemantel, with the assistance of Geoff Parling (lineout) and Petrus du Plessis (scrum) in the forwards. Three of those have already gone and the fourth (du Plessis) is rumoured to be under pressure for his job.

If there is a purge taking place, it is one which may well carry Quade Cooper out on the tide of events with it.

It is hard indeed to see Cooper mounting the sustained effort needed to recover from a serious Achilles injury if the attack structure continues to be devalued in Wisemantel’s absence.

On the Spring tour it was already playing a barely-audible second fiddle to defence, kicking and forward play in the build-up to the tournament in France. Cooper would have little interest in that.

Quade Cooper of Australia is tackled by Santiago Carreras of Argentina during The Rugby Championship between Argentina Pumas and Australian Wallabies at Estadio Malvinas Argentinas on August 06, 2022 in Mendoza, Argentina. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Quade Cooper’s 47-minute cameo in Argentina left more questions than answers. Photo: Daniel Jayo/Getty Images

After the mid-tour loss to Italy in the heart of Tuscany, I wrote this article. It was a eulogy for Australian play at number 10, a lament for the degrading of offensive nous, and the ever-dwindling number of attacking touches for the nominal outside-half.

It finished by referencing the performance of James O’Connor in the second round of the 2022 Rugby Championship against.

“On the evidence of the game in Florence, the Wallabies have slipped from world-leaders to bottom-feeders in the science of attack, and the capacity of their No.10 to pull the strings on the pass. As surely as O’Connor was marginalized in San Juan, so Lolesio was taken out of the attacking pattern in Tuscany.

“Judging purely from the number of touches they have gotten at first receiver, it seems that none of O’Connor, Lolesio or Bernard Foley are trusted to run the cutter.”

The impact may ultimately be felt in Cooper’s availability, or otherwise, for the tournament in France. A big difference was evident in Cooper’s contributions on attack during the Wallabies’ winning trot in the 2022 Rugby Championship, and his 47-minute cameo in the first round of the same competition one year later.

The winning run began with the toughest assignment of all for a first-receiver, a double-header against South Africa, the most aggressive defensive team on the planet. With Wisemantel at the helm, Cooper was not hidden or marginalized, far from it. Rather he was trusted to run the cutter against the World Champions under the fiercest of pressure.

In the first game on the Gold Coast, Cooper enjoyed 21 touches at first receiver from set-piece or breakdown, with his partner-in-crime Samu Kerevi a distant second with seven. One week later at Lang Park, the balance was even better: Cooper had 13 touches at first receiver, Kerevi six and Reece Hodge three from fullback.

Australia swept the Boks 2-0, winning by 30 points to 17 in Brisbane in the return game, in what remains the best performance of the Dave Rennie era.

Cooper coaxed and prompted, Australia won the clean break battle by 12 to one and Quade kicked 11 of his 13 goals over the series. The Queensland man was back in the groove in a very big way indeed.

Fast forward to the first round of the 2022 tournament at the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza, and he cut a far more peripheral figure.

He had only three touches at first receiver in the 47 minutes he spent on the field.

Compare that to his running mate, inside centre Hunter Paisami, who enjoyed twice that number. Cooper looked to be limping off as much as in disappointment, as with the injury to his leg. It was a highly symbolic moment.

Let’s take stock of the negatives by offering a couple of positives, first from that sweep of the Springboks back in 2021:

Cooper’s feeling for position is so fine that he waits until the last possible moment, beating the rush by fractions of a second.

In both cases, the blitzer (Lukhanyo Am in the first instance; Duane Vermeulen in the second) is fully committed, but half a step short of preventing a pass or offload which allows the Wallabies to gain width in their attack against the odds.

When the time was right, the mercurial Queenslander went to the line, forcing the defence to declare its hand while keeping his own cards up his sleeve:

Cooper advances to a spot level with the forward pod (composed of Izack Rodda, Matt Philip and Angus Bell) which would typically operate ahead of him, and that hustles the two main Springbok defenders, Am and Faf de Klerk, into their choices post-haste. The error is drawn from the scrum-half, opting to rush Kerevi and getting beaten on the inside shoulder for his trouble.

By the second match, South Africa were more circumspect and passive in defence, and Quade was free to run the show:

Fast-forward to the events in Mendoza, and Cooper was utilized more as a secondary receiver, with either a forward, or Paisami at first. The arrangement worked successfully on two occasions in the first half:

Cooper puts Jordie Petaia in with a deliciously subtle double-pump in the first example, then overcalls for the ball from Darcy Swain in the front line to make a bust in the second.

For the most part, the pattern tended to devalue Cooper’s big personality, and nullify one of Rennie and Wisemantel’s most potent weapons one year before. This is the short-hand:

Paisami is at first-receiver with Cooper at second on two consecutive plays deep in the Pumas’ 22, and Quade is committed to clean out rather than pass or run as a result. When he does get an offload away, it turns into a ‘Monty Python’ moment with Scottish referee Mike Adamson jumping in the way of Australian captain James Slipper on the receipt.

Here is the long-hand:

It is typical Brumbies two-phase package in which Cooper exits stage left, and out of shot for good. Australia were 19-10 down on the scoreboard when Cooper hobbled off early in the second period, but in truth he was already hamstrung by the need to play second fiddle on attack when he went:

Cooper gets up off the deck near the breakdown after an accidental trip by Argentine number 7 Marcos Kremer, but he doesn’t retire to first receiver. No, that would be too straightforward. Instead, he jogs to a spot outside Paisami and falls lame on the very next play. But the Wallaby attack structure was already limping prior to his departure, and it only got worse as the season wore on.

Summary

Five months ago it was Matt Taylor who left the Wallabies set-up, last week it was Scott Wisemantel; it could be Petrus du Plessis in the near future. Whether it is by voluntary choice, mutual consent or by the sharp, half-hidden edge of the axe, the Wallaby coaching cull continues. Only the Brumbies core group, plus Dave Rennie remain.

By all accounts, Wisemantel was an outstanding attack coach with England under Eddie Jones and some of the fruits of his work were clear to see with Quade Cooper as his number 10 for most of 2021. Since that high watermark, the Australian attack structure has drifted into decline and the role of the outside-half has been in a recession.

Noah Lolesio, James O’Connor, Bernard Foley and Ben Donaldson don’t look like the real deal as genuine Test playmakers. The single biggest part of that problem is that none of them get enough touches at first receiver from set-piece or ruck to discover whether they can fulfil the role, and what the work-on’s really are.

It is hard to avoid the sense that Wisemantel’s departure may have had an element of disillusionment within it, and it is equally difficult to shake the feeling that his departure may hasten Cooper’s own move towards the international exit door.

Cooper does not bang the timpani or shake the tambourine once in a while, he conducts the orchestra. He has no place as a job’s worth or as a bit-part player, and that is what he would be in the current circumstances.

He has earned the right to choreograph his own finale, but he may never get the chance.

Injury might look like a convenient cover story, but a lack of faith in the Wallabies’ attacking structure would turn out to be the underlying reason.

To lose two Wallaby coaches in the space of six months could be considered misfortune, but to lose a player crucial to Australia’s last winning run would be more than careless. It would be downright wasteful.

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