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Cooper the lead man in Aussie attacking cast

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Bryn Palmer | 15:40 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

You know the old adage. Games are won and lost up front. The forwards decide which team comes out on top, the backs decide by how much.

But Australia, England's next opponents at Twickenham on Saturday, appear to be doing their utmost to disprove this hoary cliché.

Against Martin Johnson's tourists in June, they were battered up front in Perth and conceded two penalty tries yet still emerged victorious, would have got away with another pummelling in Sydney but for Matt Giteau's goalkicking, and performed another escape act to win in relative comfort against Wales last Saturday, despite their pack conceding seven penalties for scrummaging offences.

So how do the Wallabies fly in the face of received rugby wisdom? How can they get away with having a front row that seems to collapse at the first hint of opposition power, yet still win games?

In short, because they have a sensational set of backs which is currently better than anything else out there - including the All Blacks - at sizing up space, running or passing their way through it, and crossing the opposition line.

"Certainly when things haven't been going well [up front], our ability to still score points, still get field position and still build momentum through our attack has been important to us," noted Australia assistant coach Jim Williams, the former Wallaby number eight.

That attack has yielded 38 tries in 12 Tests to date this year, including 10 in four matches against New Zealand and 11 in three against South Africa.

(From left) James O'Connor, Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and Will Genia celebrate Australia 41-39 victory over South Africa in Bloemfontein in this year's Tri-Nations

(From left) Australian backline stars James O'Connor, Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and Will Genia are all 22 or under. Picture: Getty

There is the counter-attacking verve and raw pace of the latest gem, Kurtley Beale, at full-back, the footballing nous and finishing ability of wings James O'Connor and Drew Mitchell, and the power and dash of Adam Ashley-Cooper at outside centre.

With the electric Will Genia at scrum-half, the consummate play-making skills of Matt Giteau at inside centre and open-side flanker David Pocock rapidly challenging All Black master Richie McCaw's pre-eminence at the tackle area, any turnover ball is a clear and present danger to back-pedalling opponents.

"They are probably more dangerous than the All Blacks in the attacking sense," observed England manager Martin Johnson this week. "Just when you think you have things covered off, they find a way to get round you."

Amid this stellar cast of dynamic young thrusters however, the lead role is being played by a true Aussie larrikin figure in fly-half Quade Cooper, whose pyrotechnics have won the admiration of coaches, supporters, pundits and fellow players.

"Cooper is great for the game, full stop," said Wales wing wizard Shane Williams before his meeting with the Wallabies last week. "With the ball, when he's attacking and the way he works players off him, at the moment there is no better player out there."

Cooper's unpredictable box of tricks - the jinking runs, jumps, feints, dinked kicks, sleight of hand, dashing tries - and colourful off-field antics have earned him the label of rugby's George Best.

Certainly the 22-year-old, who was born and raised in Waikato, New Zealand, but moved to Brisbane with his family at 15 and made his Wallaby debut in 2008, is a flawed genius.

His charge sheet includes being arrested for an alleged burglary, disqualification after pleading guilty to driving while on a suspended license, a reprimand for "engaging in a food fight" at the Wallabies team hotel and a A$10,000 fine for bringing the game into disrepute after a dispute with a taxi driver.

On the field, his tackling technique was described as "awkward" by BBC analyst Jonathan Davies during last Saturday's win over Wales, although he did rip the ball out of the hands of Wales lock Bradley Davies to launch the move from which the Wallabies scored their third try.

If Cooper's defence is something England will be keen to test out on Saturday, when in possession himself he is not one for giving opponents many opportunities to 'line him up'.

Fly-half Quade Cooper bamboozles the Wales defence in Australia's win in Cardiff

Quade Cooper bamboozles the Wales defence in Australia's win in Cardiff. Picture: Getty

"His footwork is so good that he very rarely gets wrapped up in the tackle," noted his opposite number in Cardiff, Stephen Jones. "You rarely see him die with the ball or go fully into contact with it. He is different to anything else out there."

Union fans should appreciate Cooper while he's around. Earlier this year he was offered a reported A$ 850,000 (#530,000) to switch to rugby league with the Parramatta Eels, but resisted the offer - at least for now - to sign a one-year deal with the Australian Rugby Union through to next year's Rugby World Cup.

If he maintains fitness, form and his current rate of progress, that tournament could propel him to superstar status.

Here, you feel, is a potential icon that could be held up alongside the likes of David Campese and Jonah Lomu, players who pushed the boundaries of the sport and transformed our perceptions of what is possible on a rugby field.

Two years ago, Cooper was an unused replacement in Australia's 28-14 win at Twickenham, having made his debut off the bench the previous week in Italy and scored a vital try.

Last year he played inside centre as the Wallabies prevailed 18-9 in south-west London.

But this season coach Robbie Deans took the bold step of giving Cooper, who starred for the Queensland Reds in this year's Super 14, a run at fly-half, with Giteau reverting to the number 12 jersey, and the move has paid off handsomely.

Cooper scooped man-of-the-match awards against England and Ireland in June, helped Australia to a first win on the South African High Veldt since 1963 in the Tri-Nations, and made the decisive break and scoring pass in the final minute which led to the Wallabies ending their 10-match losing run to the All Blacks in Hong Hong en route to Europe.

Different, dangerous and deadly when given a sniff of space, he is the fulcrum of this all singing, all dancing, Wallabies' attack, and it is far from a one-man show.

Of course this approach is not always sufficient to counteract deficiences elsewhere, and Australia can expect another, greater, examination of their forward fundamentals on Saturday, as my colleague Tom Fordyce discusses in his blog.

But it is a scary prospect for the rest that if the Wallabies sort their scrummage out and secure anything approaching 50% possession, the odds on a third Australian World Cup triumph will continue to shorten in the next 10 months.

While England hope the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole continue to develop in the Test arena during that time, Australia's brat pack - Beale (21, 11 caps), O'Connor (20, 25 caps), Cooper (22, 21 caps), Genia (22, 20 caps) and Pocock (22, 27 caps) - will be hardened internationals by then, with Giteau (28, 89 caps), Mitchell (26, 52 caps) and Ashley-Cooper (26, 48 caps) the old hands in the backline.

It is not something you are likely to hear publically from the England camp, but what would Martin Johnson give to have play-makers of the quality of Cooper, Giteau and the Larkhamesque Berrick Barnes - who can only make the bench these days - at his disposal?

All are players with an instinctive understanding of how to unlock an opposition defence - "We are confident we can deliver no matter what sort of ball we get," says Barnes - and espouse a philosophy that can surely only be good news for the game as a whole?

"When you enjoy yourself you are going to be entertaining, not just for the viewers but for us as a team," says Cooper. "If we play a brand of rugby that is good to watch and be a part of, hopefully it can become a winning style."


  • Comment number 1.

    Quade Cooper is a brilliant talent.He is one of the best out-halves in the world right now.He has great offloading skills and he is blossoming into one of the best players in the game.He is full of flair and is the most exciting player in rugby in the Southern hemisphere.

  • Comment number 2.

    Exciting maybe, but not without frailties.

    He sits quite deep and uses the pace of the backs to look for gaps. A well organised defence should be able to clean him up. The Welsh did not have a well organised defence at the weekend, and through the tri nations, Australia actually struggled - 2 wins.

    He is helped by Genia at 9 who provides super quick ball which brings the best out of him; but most of the good work comes from broken play. Two of their tries against Wales came from turnovers. But with slower ball, and a bit of pressure, he has a tendency to 'try' too hard.

    Defensively he is mildly better than Cipriani - which is like saying Tindall is mildly quicker than evolution.

    He gets great protection from Pocock, but can be run over quite easily if singled out. I would definitely look to target the 10 channel with Easter and Croft.

    This backline is fairly awesome, and they have already amassed a decent amount of caps - Cooper, O'Connor and Genia have similar amounts of caps to their ages. So whilst Johnson was mincing around with Monye at 15, Sackey, a non try scoring Cueto, Noon, Arinle and Goode before stumbling across the likes of Foden and Ashton - the Aussies were blooding their youngsters who can now add experience to youth.

    But they are not infallible.

  • Comment number 3.


  • Comment number 4.

    Yes Cooper is good, but I don't think you can even put him and Lomu in the same sentence. He is frail on defense, notice the All Blacks targeted him as a weak spot all season long. He is mercurial too, he is brilliant when in the zone, but when he isn't he self-destructs.

    Right now I feel that Dan Carter is a mile and half ahead of any other world number 10 right now, I feel that recent times have proven that. Carter missed a load of time off after ankle surgery yet can come straight back to test level without any previous game time and outplay his opposition for 60 minutes, controlling the game in the palm of his hand. NO need for talk of a rugby changing fly half when he has yet to outplay the best.

  • Comment number 5.

    After being in Brisbane for 5 years now and watching every Reds home game, the 9/10 pairing of Genia and Cooper COULD go onto being similar to Gregan/Larkham and just playing together for years to create the platform for an all conquering Aussie backline. His skills are outrageous at times, you only have to see the amazing 20m falling flick pass against the Highlanders in the S14 to realise the talent this guy has but he to consistently outplay Carter to be called the best.

    Yes, the quick ball by Genia helps but my son played against Cooper at school level where he was outrageous then and won the GPS final single-handedly. A certain Mr Pocock was playing with him at inside centre so I can understand where the defensive minder tag comes from, or as they got called by other schools, Beauty and the Beast for how Cooper and Pocock played as a pairing.

    On an aside, you mention the youth in the Australia backline currently, you're forgetting Pat McCabe, rookie of the year this year and a fantastic prospect for potentially the Matt Giteau role in the future along with Barnes.

    Final 2 points, why does Elsom now play half as well for either Australia or the Brumbies as he did for Leinster? Also, has anyone every got to 25 caps at a younger age than James O'Connor, thats an amazing number of caps for someone so young.

  • Comment number 6.

    I remember the first time I saw Quade play I said he would be the best player in the world. I agree that he is not there yet but he has all the attributes to do so. I also believe that the development of the Wallabies by Deans can stand as an example to other teams across the word. That is, to encourage youth development and to play to your strengths.

    It was evident after some key retirements that there was going to be a changing of the guard of sorts. Indeed, Deans used this opportunity, not to bring in older established players into the line-up, but to bring new fresh faces to the game of rugby.

    By doing this he managed to create a team with their own identity, that being fast paced attacking rugby, and also establish a team that didn’t have the fear and sustained defeatist attitude against the All-Blacks. Indeed, the Wallaby team truly believes they can beat the All-Blacks, how many teams in world rugby can honestly say that.

    While I would gladly run out of superlatives to describe the abilities of Quade, O’Connor, Beale, Pocock, Genia and the rest of the entourage, I think some of those superlatives should be directed Deans’ way for creating this team and encouraging them to play in this fashion.

    But also, Quade is a jet…

  • Comment number 7.

    Of course this approach is not always sufficient to counteract deficiences elsewhere, and Australia can expect another, greater, examination of their forward fundamentals on Saturday, as my colleague Tom Fordyce discusses in his blog.
    You honestly think that the English pack will dominate the Aussie pack more than the Welsh did? You English lot are so deluded it's unbelievable..............

  • Comment number 8.

    Haha, better backline then the All Blacks. Nice one Bryan.
    Australia beat them in 1 of 11 games and then they're the next big thing.
    Quade is a marvel on attack but was made to pay against the All Blacks.
    If it wasn't for him they'd have won it by more.
    He reminds me of Carlos Spencer. On his day absolutely spectacular but far too up and down to be relied upon.

  • Comment number 9.

    Of course this approach is not always sufficient to counteract deficiences elsewhere, and Australia can expect another, greater, examination of their forward fundamentals on Saturday, as my colleague Tom Fordyce discusses in his blog.
    You honestly think that the English pack will dominate the Aussie pack more than the Welsh did? You English lot are so deluded it's unbelievable..............

    I am English living in Aus, and I completely agree with Ruud, you've got Sheridan who yes is very good but hasn't played half the number of games he should have for his talent. Dan Cole who admittedly is very good and could be a vital player for us in the next 10 years, and Hartley who is yet to put in a consistent run of games in for England.

    Compare that to Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones. An All-Lions front row and 3 players with a combined 172 Wales caps. Wales arguably could have had 2 penalty tries last Saturday like England did over in June. Wayne Barnes didn't give them and Nigel Owens did, that was the difference.

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm sure Wilkinson would be able to sort him out in a tackle.

  • Comment number 11.

    Thanks for all your comments. Keep them coming.

    Re No2) Tinoflyer - Agree the Aussies have their frailties, and defensively Cooper is not going to scare anyone. But as you say, the point is that while Johnson was dithering around in selection for two years until circumstances forced him to give the youngsters a go, Deans was giving these guys a chance and now they have 20 caps. And 10 months out from the World Cup, they look the side most likely to give the All Blacks a run for their money.

    Re no 4) Nawor - Agree Cooper can't be held up with Lomu (who could also be targeted defensively by the way, with teams kicking into space behind him and making him turn). Totally different players, but he could be the player who has the biggest impact on a wider audience next year. Also agree Carter remains number one for the time being. Still oozes class.

    Re no 5) wba666 and no 6) bob_loblaw - great to hear your thoughts as guys who've obviously seen a lot of Cooper from an early age. Re: Elsom wba666, he clearly doesn't get the same platform he got at Leinster, where he was the main man and they played to his strengths. Anyone else got any thoeries on that? And anyone know if O'Connor's the quickest to 25 caps for his age? Jonny Wilkinson was still 21 when he won his 25th against Italy in the 2001 Six Nations, but O'Connor beats that.

    Re no 7) Simply Ruud. Thanks for including me in the 'English lot'. As a Welshman, it was great to see such a strong scrummaging effort last week, not something we're noted for. I think there's every chance England will win the battle there, but suspect Stephen Moore's return will make a big difference and the Aussies will actually do OK. The problems tend to come when any of Robinson, Moore or Alexander is absent.

  • Comment number 12.

    I was an avid Sale fan, and thought Jason Robinson utterly brilliant. Cooper is the only one who comes close to him.
    I now live in Brisbane, and am a regular at the Reds, and to see Cooper and Genia in action week in week out restores my faith in rugby at its best.
    And I agree with the comment that Deans needs much credit for having faith in the brat pack.
    If they don't do well in RWC11, just watch out for RWC15 !!

  • Comment number 13.

    There is a certain mythology surrounding the view that Australia has a weak scrum. Ask players from opposing teams (rather than commentators) and you get a different story. Last time the Wallabies played in England the scrum went quite well. This time, the entire front row is returning from bone fractures, so are going to be out of touch for a while. But, a good myth is always worth twice as much as facts to some.

  • Comment number 14.

    It's funny how myopic the English can be.
    One thing to point out is that there's actually more to a forward pack than a scrum. The Australian forward pack is amongst the best in the world when it comes to their defence, their line-out, their ball retention, their ball carrying ability, their counter rucking and they have probably the second best backrow in world rugby (behind NZ).
    England's pack in contrast has a great scrum, but the line-out is not great, their ball carrying is predictable and lacks offloading skills and handling, their defence is only good when their defence is on the front foot (get them moving and running and a quality backline will cut them to pieces), their ball retention is ok but not incredible, their counter-rucking isn't anything special and their back row is merely functionary, no great threat.

    In regards specifically to the scrum, England holds the edge currently, however, the difference in qulaity is not as great as some make out.

    Last year at Twickenham, Australia dominated England's scrum (They did the same thing to Wales last year, absolutley towelled the Welsh scrum).

    The Australian front row can scrum, though they have not done well the last two games.
    It is obvious why if you watch those two games. Firstly, and most importantly, they have not adjusted to the refs engagement calls in either of those games. Against NZ they kept engaging early (Rolland's incredibly slow call) and in Wales they kept engagin late (Barnes' much, much quicker engagment call).
    They simply let the other team win the engagment.
    The other big thing in Wales was the hooker. Faingaa is great in the loose but in the scrum he is not strong. Moore is a much tougher proposition and will make it much harder for England to isolate the tight head, which is what Wales did to such great effect.

    I still expect England to have the edge in the scrum, but some perspective and legitimate analysis would nice.

  • Comment number 15.

    Oh, In regards to Elsom, the Brumbies and Wallabies play a running game at a high pace, and not the same type of attritional, field position game that's common in European club rugby.
    It's a different style that Eslom has to play now. Less emphasis on big hits and breaking tackles, more on linking play, running the ball, getting thru more work and cover defence.

  • Comment number 16.

    As an Englishman living in Sydney I get to see Super 15 and good coverage of the sport.

    The gem who seems overlooked so far in this article and responses is Beale.

    I think he is an incredible player. Like Quade he is fearless and unorthodox, the traits defenders hate the most. He is also blessed with speed of thought and creativity of the best no.10s.

    He may not have the directness of someone like Cullen, but I believe he is fantastic prospect, even if he has a dodgy 'tash.

  • Comment number 17.

    Great, hyperbole-free analysis Jono. Pity you aren't commentating instead of some of the people getting paid for it.
    As far as the team tomorrow, I would have liked Humphries and Higginbotham in for McCalman and Chisholm. Finally, I just hope the front row have recovered enough grunt to neutralise England and quiten down the sarcasm from some quarters. The scrum still matters.

  • Comment number 18.

    "true Aussie larrikin figure"

    apart from the fact he was born in NZ and lived there till 2000 and is a New Zealand Moari (and has the accent to match).

  • Comment number 19.

    # 7. Simply Ruud.

    Ahahaha! Did you not think Bryn may be Welsh?

    You should say that chip on your shoulder for sunday dinner.

  • Comment number 20.

    Hi Bryn

    I too have noticed in this and some of your previous blogs that lots of non-English people assume you're English; this is testimony to the generalised (and ignorant) assumption that the BBC is actually the EBC, and to your admirably neutral journalistic style - for a Welshman anyway ;-)

    Good blog. A number of posters seem not to have realised there is a separate one on the "front row issue". Personally I am delighted that a media oreganisation as mainstream as the BBC is finally taking notice of Cooper. The guy is just dynamite. Yes we can compare him to Campese, but also, I'd say, to Sivivatu, Jason Robinson and Shane Williams - all wingers. That he plays fly-half is proof that he has the same attributes of all those players, but a little more too.

    Can't wait for the game tomorrow. As an Englishman I'm hoping for an England win, but only if we play rugby, not just intimidation in the scrum.
    Also really loking forward to seeing O'Connor in action again, as wll as Cooper.

  • Comment number 21.

    Quade Cooper is, quite simply, a genius.
    With his talent, and the rest of the young Aussie squad to back him up, the Wallabies will take next year's World Cup. Mark my words. And that's a tough thing to have to say coming from a South African.

  • Comment number 22.

    Re: No 14) Jono - some great analysis there, thanks. I appreciate there's far more to the forwards' work than the scrum and the Aussies certainly stack up in all the departments you mention. In reality of course you can't extricate one issues like the scrum from the game as a whole, but since my colleague Tom Fordyce had already delved into the front-row battle, I wanted to focus this blog on what we can expect from the Aussie backs.

    Re: 16) simonmobiledisco - indeed Beale is a real gem, and can't wait to see him at close hand on Sat. Was that the greatest 'nearly'-try of all time against Wales in Cardiff?! Any other contenders out there?

    Re: 18) jackjack22 - fair point, although I did point out he was born in NZ. Maybe should have left out the 'true Aussie' bit, but if some of his off-field misdemeanours are anything to go by, he's certainly got a bit of larrikin about him, and his style of play is pretty mischievous too. Interesting to hear Genia talking on 5 live last night about how Cooper's calmed down and 'pulled his neck in' of late. ( Good to hear. Be a shame if a great talent like that doesn't reach his full potential.

    Re: 20) hermmy - thanks for noticing!

  • Comment number 23.

    Cooper is fantastic with ball in hand, no doutb.
    But is mentally fragile.
    All he needs is a few early hits and his game folds.
    Defences seem to stand off him: send a flaker (Moody) after him all game off set pieces, a la June 2010, and he simply isnt the same player.

  • Comment number 24.

    Was lucky enough to watch Cooper for a couple of years when living in Brisbane - in the first year he was pretty much the only reason for watching the Reds; after that it was great to watch him and Genia develop together.

    All that skill AND he's dating Stephanie Rice! Lucky boy.

  • Comment number 25.

    I think the reason that nobody is posting on Tom's blog is because it is a load of one-eyed, cliche-ridden drivel. This is a good blog, more BBC than EBC, and quite objective. I think England will win on Saturday; Wales should have made that scrum dominance pay, and might well have done if the hapless Wayne Barnes wasn't blighted by the inability to see what the rest of the watching world can, and got a card out of his pocket. The number of scrum resets and the ridiculously long scrum times could have been avoided with better refereeing. As Mr Barnes won't be officiating Saturday, I think it likely that Australia will concede a penalty try or be down to 14 men for at least 10 minutes because England will target the scrum. It then hinges on how well England contain the Aussie backs...

  • Comment number 26.


    So I take it you're confident that Moore won't make any difference at all.

  • Comment number 27.

    He might well do...but the scrum isn't the Aussie forte, and you can bet that Martin Johnson will target it. At the same time, I'm sure the Aussies are expecting that, and played great rugby without that platform. If the Aussie scrum holds up, then their forwards greater mobility, and their superior backs will win the day comfortably. But I think it will be a tight, tense affair that will favour England.

  • Comment number 28.

    I agree with a lot that has been said so far: Robbie Deans has created a fantastic attacking back line, and the pack (scrum aside) is a very dynamic force. This is a great team to watch in action. What nobody has focussed on, though, is the lack of a totally reliable goalkicker. Yes, Beale and O'Connor have landed magnificent pressure kicks in recent games, but there is no Paterson, Jenkins or Wilkinson, who strokes them over with metronomic consistency. Given the number of games that (sadly) are determined by the outcome of the goal-kicking contest, this is the biggest gap that Deans has to fill before RWC 2011.

  • Comment number 29.

    Quade Cooper the modern day Carlos Spencer. Jury is still out whether his temperament can win the World Cup for Australia. Spencer went missing at the very big moments but what a great player.

  • Comment number 30.

    It was a good game by looking at the scoreboard - but it was rather infuriating for most of the second Half:

    The ref didn't allow scrums to develop - free kicks were blown immediately

    We failed to score at four attempts on the Australian try line, and then kicked a penalty under the posts with 5 minutes left & a 14 point lead.

    We were sloppy at restarts - neither of Australia's trys should have happened

    Nevertheless it was a great peformance - especially the wings, youngs and croft

  • Comment number 31.

    Quade who was he there last Saturday.


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