Australia’s rugby coach Michael Cheika does not appear to be one who learns from history. Or maybe he is ignorant of what has happened in the past when Australia included Quade Cooper in its team to play New Zealand.
Else, he may not have picked Cooper to play against New Zealand in tonight’s second Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington, a crucial game as far as Australia is concerned. If they lose or draw, then the Cup stays in New Zealand for another year. The last time Australia won the Cup was in 2002.
Let’s take a look back in time. Cooper was chosen to play in the 2011 World Cup semi-final against Australia. The match was played in New Zealand.
A few months before that game, during the annual internationals, Cooper had made the mistake of trying to take on New Zealand captain Richie McCaw and get in his face. It did not go down well with New Zealanders.
Let me quote from what I wrote at the time, on 17 October 2011: “For some reason, Cooper decided to start a running battle with the New Zealand captain Richie McCaw some months ago. It developed into physical confrontation at times and Cooper, without realising what he was biting off, kept portraying himself as New Zealand public enemy No 1.
“It was a wrong decision. Cooper is an infant in international rugby while McCaw has been around for eight years and is quite easily the best in his position in the world. The New Zealand rugby captain is more important to the 4 million citizens of that country than even their own prime minister; Cooper has no such status or anything even remotely like it in Australia.
“Cooper built up a lot of pressure on himself and clearly could not handle it in front of the hostile New Zealand crowds. Every time he made a mistake on the field during the tournament, the crowds cheered. They booed whenever he got the ball.”
Back to tonight’s game. Has Cheika taken these factors into account when picking Cooper? I doubt he has. Will the pressure be any less on Cooper? No, because New Zealand dominates the world in just one sport and the crowds there are unlikely to forget Cooper’s actions in the past.
Cooper was picked for the 2015 World Cup but played second fiddle to Bernard Foley. He only played against Uruguay, a minor team as far as world rugby is concerned.
He should have been eased into Australia’s side by playing in internationals against other countries. Once he was functioning well — and he does have a tendency to screw up badly at times — then he should have been picked to play against New Zealand, first in Australia where he has the home crowd’s support, and then in New Zealand.
Rugby coaches need to look beyond a player’s ability when picking them. Cheika appears to have erred on this selection.