Brian Ashton: Cooper is Wallabies' Maradona and can set the World Cup alight
Tackling the issues
Saturday 11 September 2010
Candidates for team of the week? Exeter, triumphant on their Premiership debut, were certainly among them, having sent notice to the rest of the top flight that Sandy Park will be no holiday zone this season.
Northampton, comprehensive winners in their derby contest with Leicester, also caught the eye – especially in the front row, where Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati delivered excellent performances in both tight and loose. Had Stephen Myler been in any sort of kicking form, they would have put 40 points past the meanest defence in the country.
But I hope enthusiastic followers of the club game in England will forgive me if I nominate the Wallabies as the pick of the bunch. Their Tri-Nations victory over the Springboks in Bloemfontein was one of those high-scoring affairs increasingly in evidence on the far side of the Equator: they just about shaded the decision in an 80-point encounter, even though Victor Matfield, the South African lock, made the play of the game with a barely credible run/chip/off-load routine to create a try for Jaque Fourie. (If I'm honest, I can't remember Nigel Redman pulling that sort of stunt during our time together at the Recreation Ground in Bath!) I'll say here and now that the Australians will pose a definite threat at next year's World Cup.
They are playing a challenging brand of rugby that is confrontational in all the right ways: quick-thinking, ambitious, unfailingly positive. Judging by the number of quick throws they take, they must spend less time practising line-outs than anyone in the international game. As for their scrum, the subject of much derisive comment when England toured down there in June... well, it has improved out of all recognition in the space of a few weeks. Benn Robinson's return at loose-head prop has made a big difference, and with the hooker Stephen Moore back in business alongside him, they are far more combative in this department.
Together with the lock Mark Chisholm, these individuals have brought a different level of physicality to the Wallaby act up front. They were certainly prepared to mix it with the Boks in the loose – never the easiest way of spending an afternoon – and with two or three key forwards still working through their rehabilitation after serious injury, there is surely more to come.
The point is this: if the Wallaby pack can provide a reasonably steady supply of decent possession, there is a man in midfield who can maximise its value. I'm not talking of Matt Giteau on this occasion. My man of the moment is Quade Cooper, who has everyone dancing to his tune right now. He's not quite a one-man show – to describe him in those terms would be unfair to a number of other vibrant backs – but the outside-half boasts a skill-set that puts him in the "nightmare" category as far as opposition defences are concerned.
He's not the greatest tackler in the world, and this one weakness would render him off-limits in the eyes of many international selectors. But Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, prefers to see the good things in his resident maverick, and his decision to persevere with him is beginning to pay very handsome dividends. Cooper is one of those rare instinctive sportsmen who not only have the ability to make the ball talk, but also have a sixth sense when it comes to weighing up a situation in a split second and picturing all the possibilities. He reminds me of a brilliant attacking midfield player in football – one of those Diego Maradona types blessed both with 360-degree vision and the weaponry to make it count.
Cooper is impossible to second-guess. What is more, he has the mental toughness that separates the best from the rest. He places great demands on himself, choosing to play right up there in the firing line, where he can see the whites of his opponents' eyes. Even when things go wrong for him, as they occasionally must for someone playing rugby this way, he has the confidence and strength of character to keep doing what he does. It does not occur to him to seek a hiding place, and that makes him special.
To my mind, Deans has handled him brilliantly. And remember, Cooper is still relatively inexperienced at Test level. As he closes in on his first World Cup, there will be fewer off-days and an increasing number of sensational ones. In 12 months' time, when it really matters, we'll be counting him among the two or three most dangerous players in the sport.
Short and sweet is training mantra
I was interested to read the thoughts of the Bath prop David Flatman in his Independent on Sunday column last weekend. He told how the training at Bath had become shorter, sharper and more intense, rarely lasting more than an hour. There is clear value in this. The All Blacks abandoned long, drawn-out sessions years ago, largely because they were utterly irrelevant to rugby as it is played on match day. For too many years, too many coaches have trotted out the same old stuff, keeping their players on the practice pitch "until they get it right". It's nonsense. A game lasts 80 minutes, and when the final whistle goes, that's your lot: no second chances, no having another shot at it, no "getting it right before we go". Training should always reflect match situations. Anything else is pointless.
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