Advance Australian flair: Cooper and Genia lead the latest generation of dazzlers
The Wallaby back division is rated the best in the world, though, as Chris Hewett reports, given their weak pack, they have to be
Friday 12 November 2010
The Wallaby coach Robbie Deans has restored the high-calibre hooker Stephen Moore to his front row for tomorrow's contest with England, for the very good reason that he'd have been mad to do anything else. Had he made any kind of adjustment to his back division, Deans would have left the team hotel in a straitjacket, accompanied by half-a-dozen men in white coats. Happily for the tourists, he is entirely in control of his faculties. The unit taking the field at Twickenham will be the best Australia has to offer – and that, by extension, means the best in the world.
There has been more than one game-changing Wallaby back-line combination over the last quarter of a century or so – players who made themselves rugby missionaries by pushing back the boundaries of the union code and stretching the sport's sense of the possible way beyond the existing limits. The 1984 vintage – Nick Farr-Jones, Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh, Andrew Slack, Brendan Moon, David Campese and Roger Gould – is still considered special to this day. The group that won the World Cup 15 years later – George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Tim Horan, Daniel Herbert, Joe Roff, Ben Tune and Matthew Burke – were within a gnat's crotchet of being even better.
And now we have this little lot. Quade Cooper's mind-bending performances at outside-half have made him the principal subject of discussion wherever rugby folk gather together for a beer and a chinwag, but the naturalised New Zealander is the first to acknowledge that the men who stand either side of him, Will Genia and Matt Giteau, are the ones who earn him the right to take his liberties, while those occupying the wider, deeper positions – Adam Ashley-Cooper and Kurtley Beale, Drew Mitchell and the disconcertingly cherubic James O'Connor, who looks as though he should be singing cantatas in an abbey somewhere – are crucial in bringing his ideas to fruition.
Back in the summer, when more than half the Wallaby pack were either in bandages or on crutches, these backs scared the living daylights out of England every time they got their hands on the ball, which wasn't often. There must be occasions when they scare Deans as much as they do the opposition, for the international coaches who are wholly comfortable with this high-risk, high-reward philosophy of rugby can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
"When the whistle blows," said Deans when pressed on the matter yesterday, "I back them and I trust them. God knows, I'd love to be out there playing with them, but as that's never going to happen, I just strap myself in and enjoy the ride." So when did he realise he had a stellar combination on his hands? Immediately on succeeding Eddie Jones as head coach in 2008, or some time later? "I was familiar with the territory of Wallaby rugby," the hard-bitten New Zealander replied, "but I had to familiarise myself with the people – not just with the incumbents, but with the emerging group, which included James and Kurtley. It didn't take long to work out that they were pretty talented.
"But look, talent is not really the critical point of difference at Test level. The critical points are teamwork and toughness. Rugby is not about seven people; it's about 15 people, just as it always was. Someone like Quade is his own man, a unique player who brings his own things to a game. But he can't bring anything to a game unless the blokes in front of him give him some ball to use."
In many respects, the key figure is Genia, the scrum-half. The link he has formed with Cooper, his fellow Queensland Red, is as productive as anything in the international game, and the two of them have power to add. "Quade has settled in now," said the 22-year-old from Papua New Guinea, whose father Kilroy served as a cabinet minister on the island, taking on the justice, foreign affairs and defence portfolios at various times in his political career. "He's maturing all the time and growing in his appreciation of when to try things and when not to try them. He's a very smart player instinctively, but he's also a student of the game, which has had a lot to do with his development."
But Genia is far more than Cooper's facilitator, the straight man to the star turn. As he frequently finds himself operating behind a beaten pack, he has, like Gregan before him, become a loaves-and-fishes specialist, seizing on scraps of possession and somehow transforming it into a banquet on which the Cooper-Giteau midfield axis can feast. It is the devil's own job to hold things together in the face of such adversity, but at his best – and he is working his way back towards the top of his game after a spell of injury – Genia works his magic with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Interestingly, he agrees with his coach on the hidden quality that is fast turning the Wallabies into a side capable of winning next year's World Cup on the far side of the "ditch", as they call the Tasman Sea. "Robbie is right about the importance of toughness," he said. "I don't think too many people recognise that aspect of our play. They see the razzle-dazzle, all the chip-and-chase stuff, but miss the fact that guys are busting a gut to get to the breakdown and keep a move alive. There's a real hunger about this side, and a real sense of harmony as well. Those are the things that matter, because without them, people don't push themselves that extra yard or put themselves through that last piece of hurt.
"Is it difficult to do what I need to do when the scrum is going backwards? It doesn't help, that's for sure. It's possible to play some football even when things are going really badly up front, but it's far from ideal and it's not something we're happy with or we're prepared to accept. Actually, we've had our good days in the scrum at Twickenham in recent years. If we have another of those good days this weekend, we'll do some interesting things with the ball."
According to Deans, the tourists are thinking hard about their set-piece work but not beating themselves up over it. "It's been a typical training week," he said when asked to reflect on the scrummaging calamity against Wales in Cardiff six days ago and offer a thought or two on how he might rescue something of value from the rubble. "We always place the appropriate amount of emphasis on each area of our game. It's not a question of chasing the bus every time there's a problem: we don't go through a catching session if someone happens to drop a pass.
"Every time we play there are different aspects to our preparation, because you can't succeed against the top teams by playing one-dimensional rugby. Not any more. You might take the field with an idea about how you want to approach the contest, but if you find yourselves being second-guessed, you have to react, to adapt. I think we've done that pretty well in recent matches, and the idea is to improve on that this weekend. I have no doubt that we'll turn in our best performance of the tour to date. It's our third match, and we haven't had to fly across the globe to get here. We should move up a step."
As the Wallabies began this trip by beating the All Blacks in Hong Kong – beating them twice over, in fact, both at the start and the end of a classic encounter – and followed up by tripping the light fantastic at the Millennium Stadium, that last thought of the coach's was not a comforting one for England.
Young, gifted and backs: Australia's new boys
A 21-year-old player of aboriginal descent, the full-back went within an inch of scoring the try of the season against Wales last weekend, putting boot to ball twice with such vision and precision that Diego Maradona would have nodded in recognition. The new Campese? It is far from impossible.
Born in the North Island of New Zealand, Cooper was part of the Wallaby side that prevailed over England at Twickenham last year. However, he is a very different proposition now, having moved from centre to outside-half. The word "genius" is beginning to follow him around.
Fresh out of his teens, the wing already has 20-odd caps in his kitbag. The last of those Test performances, in Cardiff last week, was captivating; the previous one, a match-winning effort against the All Blacks in Hong Kong, was the stuff of which dreams are made.
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