So, the Lions have been in camp for over a week now; and after their initial week at the Vale of Glamorgan they’ve headed over the Irish Sea to train at Carton House. Everything appears to be going swimmingly for the Lions so far, with the players seemingly enjoying the experience and Gatland intimating how impressed he is so far with how the players are doing. However, whilst all is well in the Lions camp, there has been quite a bit of contention surrounding the Wallabies, as Robbie Deans has selected a 25-man squad for the Lions visit that contained one particularly controversial omission – Quade Cooper.
The fact that Cooper has been omitted does not necessarily mean that he won’t play in the tests, with Deans saying that he will add 6 more players to the party; but being left out of the initial 25 man squad will give him far less time to prepare and consequently is likely to significantly weaken his chances of making the test team. Whilst Deans has attempted to justify this omission, he has left out a very talented player indeed, causing many sections of the media to cast further doubt on the Wallabies ability to triumph over the Lions this summer.
When he’s on form Cooper is one of the very best players in the world, and has played some scintillating rugby for the Queensland Reds this season. Cooper and Deans have a history of not really seeing eye-to-eye with Cooper having previously criticised Deans for some of his coaching techniques as well as having a pop at the ‘toxic’ environment in the Wallabies camp.
Deans suggested that these past disagreements have had no bearing on his decision not to select Cooper, pointing more towards the fact that Cooper often defends at fullback as opposed to in the defensive line – perhaps intimating that he doesn’t have too much faith in his defensive ability. Whilst defending is no doubt not one of Cooper’s specialties, it is a massive risk to leave out a player who has the ability to turn a game on its head; especially when these games are likely to be decided by tight margins.
When questioned on the decision to omit Cooper, Gatland suggested that he too found it a strange decision. He pointed to Cooper’s tremendous performances in the Super 15, but also added the caveat that he wasn’t aware of precisely what was going on behind the scenes in the Wallaby camp.
For me, it’s a poor decision. When Deans selected the squad he suggested that James O’Connor would be his first choice 10, and whilst O’Connor is no doubt a fantastic talent, he doesn’t quite have the mercurial and unpredictable ability of Cooper.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out the way in which the Lions are going to play. Having watched Gatland’s game plan over several years now, he is very likely to rely on physicality to get over the gainline and grind the opposition down. Quite simply, if the Wallabies try to play a similar game plan they will lose. The Aussies will have a vastly inferior pack, and no one in their backline will strike fear into the heart of the Lions players; at least not in terms of physicality.
My view is that if the Wallabies are going to have any chance of emerging from this series victorious, they have to play a creative running game – the one that has worked out so well for them in the past. They have to move the pack around, and rely on guile and skill to create gaps for their players to exploit. To do that, they need to play their most creative players, and with Kurtley Beale currently in rehab, Cooper should be a go-to player. The Lions are likely to play a very quick back row, and as such the Wallabies will want a 10 with quick feet who is able to play flat on the gainline and catch the Lions back row out. That player is Cooper, not O’Connor.
Whilst this is quite a negative piece as far as the Wallabies are concerned, as a Lions fan I have to say that I’m delighted that Cooper hasn’t made the squad. The Wallabies are at their most dangerous when they play a fast, stylish and high-tempo game and this is unlikely to happen with O’Connor at 10. Whoever plays at 6 and 7 for the Lions will probably be briefed to head straight for O’Connor as fast as they possibly can, meaning that O’Connor will have to stand a lot further back, as he doesn’t have the stepping ability of Cooper. This is likely to force the Wallabies to play more rugby behind the gainline, and consequently will hopefully nullify their attacking threat.