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Time to inject Quade Cooper back into the Wallabies

Will Genia

If it were up to me, Quade Cooper would be starting at No 10 against the Springboks this weekend.

Could you say that I’m biased? Maybe. But I don’t think there are many players in Australia that would be a better No 10 than him. Maybe James O’Connor – but even that would be a good debate.

I was so genuinely happy for Quade when he got called back into the squad. Obviously, things didn’t end for him with Australian rugby the way that he would have liked. To see him get the opportunity to maybe be a part of the squad and go out in a way that’s more fitting to his contribution to the Wallabies and Australia rugby would be great.

But, more importantly, I still think he’s good enough. You’ve got guys like Will Harrison, Ben Donaldson, Jono Lance – plus obviously Noah Lolesio and James, but I’d say Quade is still one of the best 10s in the country. I think he warrants selection based on his ability alone.

I think Noah’s done well – you have to understand that he’s a young kid and he’s still growing, so he’s going to make some mistakes and errors. I understand the idea of Dave Rennie picking him and continuing to back him as their game driver, but I do think you have to manage that.

While Noah Lolesio has made good strides in six starts this year, the young playmaker is still lacking in big-game experience. (Photo by Brent Phibbs/Photosport)

He’s had three big games against the All Blacks where we’ve been poor as a team. Maybe to manage his confidence and manage him moving forward into the next few years, you give him a break, you put him on the bench for 20 or 30 and you start someone like Quade or James to give the team a different voice or dynamic, obviously in the same structures. But you’ve got to change something, because we’ve been pretty unconvincing in the last three games.

Noah’s the guy that’s going to take the Wallabies to the next World Cup. By that stage, I think he will have grown and matured into a very, very good player. He’s already a good player, but it’s about making sure you don’t blow his confidence too much so that he starts to go into his shell or not express himself.

One thing that does irritate me is when people say we need to blood guys for the World Cup now but in most cycles, there’s about 60 tests. Not many people play 60 tests, that’s essentially a test career. There are still so many games of rugby within a four-year cycle where you’ve got to win, where you can’t just be thinking about the future.

Obviously, coaches tend to be judged on their World Cup performance and that current situation is a bit different due to all the disruption from Covid, but I’d hate to see us move closer and closer towards a time where we only care about the World Cup.

What the All Blacks seem to do so well is they blood their younger players at the right time. People talk about depth and yes, New Zealand rugby has a lot of depth, but what doesn’t get spoken about enough is they’re really good at introducing their players into the system at the right time and not thrusting them into the deep end.

Young guys are accumulating test matches now for experience in the future but we talk about the future so much when you’ve got to be winning games now – because how else do you build momentum, how else do you build confidence by the time the World Cup actually comes around?

Both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett are good examples. For so long, Dan Carter was the All Blacks No 10 and Barrett would come off the bench as a reserve 10, sometimes as a fullback, to get that experience in big matches and be comfortable at that level.

The transition from DC to him was smooth because he’d had almost 40 tests under his belt before he went into the driver’s seat full-time.

It’s the same thing with Richie at the Crusaders and now with the All Blacks.

I don’t think we do that well enough in Australia. Young guys are accumulating test matches now for experience in the future but we talk about the future so much when you’ve got to be winning games now – because how else do you build momentum, how else do you build confidence by the time the World Cup actually comes around?

I’m all for giving the younger blokes an opportunity but there has to be a balance to it. Don’t just chuck them in there and say ‘Do your best’. There’s got to be a sense of measure in the approach.

Beauden Barrett spent many a season learning off Dan Carter before finally being given the reins with the All Blacks. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Our 9 and 10 right now are both very young. Don’t get me wrong, Tate McDermott’s been exceptional in all three Bledisloes – I think he needs to work a little bit on his passing still but I think he’s been excellent.

But purely from an experience point of view, both he and Noah are very young, and when the heat comes on and the pressure comes on, they’re going to struggle to run the team. Playing a second or third-string French team is very different to playing the All Blacks and I think a lot of the young guys in the Wallabies have figured that out the hard way.

Maybe that means Dave Rennie needs to look at swapping one of the playmakers out for a more experienced option, either Nic White or one of Quade Cooper or James O’Connor – though obviously James has been injured, which hasn’t helped things.

I thought Reece Hodge looked really good when he came on at No 10 against the All Blacks. The attack actually started to flow much nicer, even though he’s not naturally a 10 or a ball-player. He gave us some really nice flow and we had some good passages of attack with him at first receiver. He’s obviously an option to cover there, but he can also play anywhere else in the backline.

Reece has played close to forty tests. He knows what’s required on the field but he also has the confidence to execute it. I think when you’re a little bit inexperienced, you can sit back a bit and watch the game happen. When the ball comes your way, you probably look to shift it – whether that’s kicking or passing.

Maybe we’re just not yet at that level where we can play that type of rugby that the All Blacks play. I have no doubt we’ll get there, because with experience comes confidence and growth in your skill level and mindset – but maybe we can simplify things a bit now so that we can compete and win games.

When Hodgey came on, it looked like he wanted to take the game on.

I’m not suggesting it’s Noah’s fault, but because of his experience, when the game starts to get away from you, you tend to drift away, go inward and sit back and watch it. Certainly, at the start of my test career, I had plenty of games like that, plenty of moments where I started to go within myself and became a passenger, rather than contributing.

The one game we actually won last year was with Hodgey at No 10. I think, because we’d lost a lot of playmakers, we actually dumbed down our game plan, we really simplified it. Maybe we’re just not yet at that level where we can play that type of rugby that the All Blacks play. I have no doubt we’ll get there, because with experience comes confidence and growth in your skill level and mindset – but maybe we can simplify things a bit now so that we can compete and win games.

There are a lot of positives to take from the way we’re playing, but we’ve certainly struggled backing up week after week against the All Blacks.

We’re playing well in patches but for nowhere near as long enough. The right intent is there, as far as wanting to use the ball in attack, and when we hold onto the ball for long enough, we look pretty good, we look sharp. But more often than not, we’re pushing the last pass or making one bad decision, and the All Blacks have punished us for it.

The experienced Quade Cooper could take some weight off young Noah Lolesio’s shoulders for the Wallabies. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

That often comes down to experience – and that’s why I think we would benefit from having a Quade Cooper, a James O’Connor or even a Reece Hodge at No 10.

That’s also one of the reasons I’m so glad to see Samu Kerevi back in gold. He’s a world-class player with 30 caps under his belt for the Wallabies, and plenty more for the Reds.

His ability to get you over the gain-line, make line breaks, make tackle breaks, and also stay up in the tackle and get the offload away – that makes such a difference. It gives you second-phase play while the defence is scrambling.

He’s a quick man too, for a big boy. He’s very agile. I think the biggest growth in him is he just understands the game more now than when he left. He understands when to use a certain skill – when to truck the ball up, when to give the ball early – and his vision and his ability to execute the pass has stepped up since he was last here.

Look at the Wallabies’ first try from the weekend, scored by Folau Fainga’a, Samu gets the ball at the ruck, scoots out and hits the runner in space – he could be playing halfback. His growth has been amazing to see and I thought he was one of our best players in the weekend.

Five Rugby Championship tests in five weeks is going to take a massive toll. We used to have a week off after every two games and in that recovery week, you were absolutely cooked.

He’s got one or two World Cups in him still and he’s one of our few world-class players.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how Dave Rennie manages the squad over the coming month, as far as balancing youth with experience goes, making sure everyone stays fresh, and also keeping in mind that we obviously want to win.

Five Rugby Championship tests in five weeks is going to take a massive toll. We used to have a week off after every two games and in that recovery week, you were absolutely cooked. Going five straight will be tough.

A lot of guys have been playing big minutes in key positions. If you give other people an opportunity it can freshen up the mentality and freshen up the enthusiasm, so I’m interested to see how they go.

This weekend is obviously going to be absolutely massive.

The returning Samu Kerevi was one of the Wallabies’ best in their loss to the All Blacks. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Despite the Springboks’ poor record in Australia in recent years, they’re still going to come into the next two tests as the favourites.

They do what they do so well and I thought that in the three tests they played against the Lions, they executed well with very little rustiness so you’d expect the time they’ve spent together since then will put them in good stead and they’ll be coming in very confident, for good reason.

But I think, stylistically, we match up quite well against them. In my experience, having played them for about a decade, the Springboks tried to beat you through physicality and their set-piece but if we moved them around a bit, we’d do well.

I think the way this current Wallabies team likes to play, it could be a good match-up for them.

From a spectator’s point of view, it’s hard not to get excited about the bumper test calendar coming up. There’s going to be some good footy to watch, basically every weekend for the foreseeable future.

It’s funny to think that the Springboks won that World Cup but were so well-beaten by the All Blacks in the pool stages. They’re coming up against a style of rugby they haven’t played in a while and the last time they did play against a top team that likes to throw the ball around, they lost, so this weekend will be as telling for them as it will be for us.

I think the key to the game for us will be when the Springboks look to exert that physical pressure, if we can hold our nerve and not crumble, that will go a long way to getting the result.

The last month has been tough for the Wallabies, and things aren’t about to get any easier.

But, from a spectator’s point of view, it’s hard not to get excited about the bumper test calendar coming up. There’s going to be some good footy to watch, basically every weekend for the foreseeable future – and it’s nice to get sit back and look at the calendar without worrying how my body is going to be feeling the next day.

Bring it on.

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