Five years after putting a line through Quade Cooper’s name, the once mercurial playmaker will go head to head against the coach who ruthlessly waved him goodbye.
Cooper, the 75-Test playmaker, will make his Wallabies return against the Cheika-coached Argentina in their Rugby Championship Test in Mendoza on Sunday (AEST) after recovering to full fitness after his late scratching in Perth a month ago. The playmaker is one of seven changes to the starting line-up for the TRC opener.
Years of painful history will go on the line in a high stakes Test the duo have attempted to downplay.
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Cooper says he “didn’t really have much to do with him” and not “really involved in too many of his teams”, while Cheika, in an interview with Nine newspapers said he didn’t know what changes he’s made as a “bloke” but, from the outside, believes he’s “sorted out his game-management” on the field.
Those comments speak of Cooper’s maturity in recent years, but it was less than three years ago that the playmaker was blunt as an instrument about his assessment of the former Wallabies boss.
“If he cared about Aus rugby he would have done it a while ago,” Cooper tweeted, mere moments after Cheika resigned as Wallabies coach following their exit at the 2019 World Cup.
Cheika consulted no-one when he turned away from Cooper, leaving his assistants surprised and shocked having barely used him during his five-year tenure as coach.
But a year after answering a SOS to re-join the Wallabies, and waiting four Tests before being given an opportunity before leading the side to five straight victories, Cooper is one of Rennie’s first names on the team list.
“The Cheik thing, we haven’t spoken about at all. I certainly haven’t spoken to him about anything that’s historical,” Rennie said.
“His focus is on playing well for us and we expect him to do that.”
Now Cooper, whose winning percentage is the highest of any current Wallaby (63 per cent) must continue to play with the same understated style he showed last year when he made his return from a four-year Test hiatus, must continue to show the same understated nature he played with during last year’s Rugby Championship.
Indeed, being the game-manager and not the showman is vital for the Wallabies’ chances in Argentina.
Australia needs a playmaker to pull the right strings and Cooper, 34, who no longer has the pace to run through an opposition, must use his game smarts and clever short kicking game to open up Cheika’s side.
Without Samu Kerevi on his outside, he won’t have the battering ram that was used so successfully against South Africa and Argentina last year. Nor will he have match-form to draw confidence from, having not played since leading his Japanese side into the League One competition in May.
Instead, he will have Hunter Paisami, a lively and talented, albeit developing centre, outside him and that combination will be pivotal against a Pumas side that is expected to flood the front-line of defence and go hard on the ball.
“I think that was the impressive thing about Quade last year, we had a plan going into the game and he implemented it really well,” Rennie said.
“We’ve got a clear plan this time as well. Maybe as a young man, it was important for him to play well and dominate the game but he’s doing it in different ways now.
Undoubtedly Cheika will send his big men down Cooper’s channel and at the playmaker himself.
With no specialist playmaker on the bench, with Reece Hodge acting as Cooper’s understudy, the veteran back, who has rising centres in the midfield and an inexperienced fullback outside him, will be tasked with shouldering much of the weight of responsibility.
If he can stand up and lead the Wallabies to victory, success won’t taste much sweeter.
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