(Reuters) – Quade Cooper’s transformation from risky bet to safe pair of hands was a surprise boost for Australia last season but the flyhalf’s self-discipline faces a test against Michael Cheika’s Argentina on Saturday.
Unable to play in the series defeat to England due to a calf injury, Cooper is back in the number 10 jersey that Cheika was loath to give him through five years coaching the Wallabies.
While Dave Rennie has all but anointed Cooper as his starting flyhalf for next year’s Rugby World Cup, his predecessor Cheika preferred Bernard Foley at the 2015 tournament in England and left Cooper out of his squad entirely for Japan in 2019.
The snub did not go down well with Cooper, who showed a touch of schadenfreude when Cheika resigned in the wake of the Wallabies’ quarter-final exit from Japan, their equal-worst result at the global showpiece.
“If he cared about Aus rugby he would have done it a while ago,” he tweeted.
It was a sentiment shared by quite a few home fans as the Wallabies stagnated during Cheika’s final years.
But others endorsed Cheika for freezing out Cooper, given the playmaker’s high-risk game was prone to unravel under pressure.
Former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans also found a younger Cooper too hot to handle, leaving him out of the British and Irish Lions series in 2013.
Three years on from the World Cup, both Cooper and Cheika are enjoying fresh starts in vastly different environments.
Having joined Mario Ledesma’s Argentina staff in the past two seasons, Cheika succeeded him in the top job this year and last month guided the Pumas to a 2-1 victory over Scotland in his first series in charge.
‘THE CHEIKA THING’
Cooper returned to the Wallabies fold under Rennie last year, helping them sweep South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship.
Whether it was maturity or the influence of Rennie, a calmer operator than Cheika, Cooper eschewed his mercurial ways and won plaudits for his game management through that run of four tests.
“The impressive thing about Quade last year was that we had a plan and he implemented it really well,” Rennie told reporters on Friday.
“We have 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 a different way now.
“The Cheika thing, we haven’t spoken to him about it at all.
“His focus is on playing well for us, and we expect him to do that.”
Cooper’s choice of club over country late last season, when he stayed in Japan rather than tour Britain with the Wallabies, was probably not part of Rennie’s game plan.
Without him, the Wallabies have lost five of their past six tests.
“I don’t know about (Cooper) as a bloke but as a player, from what I have seen on the outside, he just looks like he has his game management sorted,” Cheika told the Sydney Morning Herald this week.
“He is doing the job that his coach wants, and he has always been a quality player.”
Wallabies players have all played down the ‘Cheika factor’ for Argentina, saying they hardly need to focus on the coach for motivation.
Cooper said Cheika would not be front of mind when out on the field in Mendoza on Saturday.
“Not at all. For me, I am just on a journey about myself, being the best that I can, especially for this team and with these young guys,” the 34-year-old added.
“I know my days in and around this are quite limited now, as you get older.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)