The Rugby Championship 2021: The Breakdown – Cooper returns from the wilderness

By Sports Desk September 10, 2021

Australia are looking for a lift and have turned to Quade Cooper to provide guile from number 10 against South Africa as the Rugby Championship resumes.

Three weeks on from the second round of games, Australia and the Springboks go head to head, and New Zealand tackle Argentina, with both games being played on Sunday at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast.

The Wallabies took a Bledisloe Cup drubbing at the hands of the All Blacks, losing all three games in that series, with two of those forming part of this tournament, so they are looking for a spark and will hope Cooper, making his first international appearance in over four years, can provide that.

The 33-year-old last featured, briefly, against Italy in June 2017 and now plays for Japanese team Kintetsu Liners.

His career looked to be in steep decline at one point, as Cooper lost his place in not only the Australia squad during Michael Cheika's reign as coach, but also fell out of favour with the Queensland Reds.

Now he is set for a 71st Test appearance, having been originally beckoned into Dave Rennie's squad as a training player.

South Africa make seven changes to their starting XV for the match, with number eight Duane Vermeulen selected to make his first appearance for the Boks since the 2019 World Cup final after recovering from ankle surgery.

There are changes afoot for New Zealand too, with lock Brodie Retallick named captain for the clash with Argentina as Ardie Savea sits the game out after taking a knock to the head last week.

Ahead of the crunch double-header, the third of six rounds of games in the championship, Stats Perform looks at the key Opta facts.

NEW ZEALAND v ARGENTINA

Form

The All Blacks are inevitably on a high after crushing the Bledisloe Cup aspirations of their trans-Tasman rivals and duly making a strong start to the championship. They have full-back Jordie Barrett available despite his red card against Australia last time out after the punishment was rescinded on appeal in midweek.

New Zealand have won their last seven men's Tests on the bounce by an average margin of 40 points per game. The last time they won more in succession was a nine-game streak from November 2017 to September 2018 which included a 46-24 win over Argentina.

They have not always had it easy against the South American powerhouses, though. Their clashes in last year's Tri-Nations were memorable, with Argentina scoring a stunning 25-15 win over the All Blacks on November 14, 2020, only to then lose 38-0 when they met again a fortnight later. New Zealand have won 29 of their 31 Tests against Argentina (D1, L1).

New Zealand have had just 12 minutes and 53 seconds of possession per game in this year's Rugby Championship, the lowest of any team in the competition. Despite this, they lead the competition in metres gained (615), clean breaks (15), and points scored (48) per game.

Argentina's two defeats to South Africa in the opening two rounds suggest they might find the going tough this weekend.

Ones to watch

Blindside flanker Akira Ioane has crossed the gainline on 17 of his 18 gainline carries for New Zealand in the competition so far. His 94 per cent rate is the highest of any player to have made at least 10 gainline carries in this tournament.

Retallick will carry the responsibility of leadership after he was favoured ahead of Beauden Barrett who, at fly-half, was judged to have enough going on without having to issue orders.

Coach Ian Foster said of Retallick, who has returned to Test action this year after a spell in Japan: "He's back, he's confident, he's got the smile on his face, and that's part of the biggest thing with Brodie. When he's settled and he loves the environment, then he can go out and express himself.

"And I don't want a lot to change with that captaincy band. It's one of the challenges of giving it to someone like Brodie, do you force him into someone that he's not? But I'm really comfortable. He knows his role, he's clear and the boys certainly want to follow him."

Discipline will be important for both sides, with Argentina having received six yellow cards and one red card in their last six men's Tests, including two yellow cards against the Boks last time out. They had received only one yellow card and one red card in their previous 25 Tests.

SOUTH AFRICA v AUSTRALIA

Form

After the tussle between the All Blacks and Pumas, perhaps this can be considered the headline match of the weekend, an embattled Australia facing World Cup winners who are aiming for a statement victory.

For COVID-19 reasons, Queensland is staging the remainder of this tournament, and Australia coach Rennie will look for a response from his players to their sequence of losses.

The three-in-a-row streak is a concern, and the last time the Wallabies lost more in succession was a four-game stretch from June to August in 2018. They lost twice to Ireland and twice to New Zealand before ending that losing run with a 23-18 success against South Africa.

Australia have won 19 of their last 24 men's Tests at home against South Africa, logging just three defeats in that span (D2). They are undefeated in their last five such fixtures (W4, D1), yet each of those games has featured a margin of fewer than seven points on the day.

It could be tight again, with South Africa having won 15 of their 18 Tests since the beginning of 2019. They have won their last four on the bounce, and their 83 per cent win rate since the beginning of 2019 is the best of any top-tier team in that time.

South Africa defeated Argentina 29-10 in the second round, while Australia went down 38-21 to New Zealand in Perth.

The Springboks have missed the fewest tackles per game (16) so far in the championship and have the highest tackle success rate (89 per cent) of any team. Australia’s tackle success rate of 82 per cent is the lowest of the four sides, but the context is that they were facing the All Blacks.

South Africa have created 20 mauls throughout this tournament, which is twice as many as any other team and five times as many as Australia (4); the Springboks have gained 56 metres and scored one try from those mauls.

Ones to watch

Australia scrum-half Tate McDermott has beaten nine defenders in this year's Rugby Championship, the second-most of any player (Akira Ioane – 12). He beat seven defenders against the All Blacks in the last round, and only twice in the last decade has any scrum-half from a tier one nation made more (Antoine Dupont 9, Francois Hougaard 8).

He therefore has a pivotal role to play, and how he combines with Cooper will be keenly observed.

Rennie said he was "thrilled" to be able to be giving Cooper another chance to show his quality at this level, and it remains to be seen whether this is a one-off comeback or something that might have longer-term legs.

Michael Hooper will match George Gregan's record of 59 matches as captain of Australia as he wins a 112th cap, and there are other landmarks set to arise. Reece Hodge, who starts on the bench, and Allan Alaalatoa will each win 50th caps.

Rennie described the match as "a huge occasion" for Hooper, hailing his longevity as "testament to his leadership and resilience".

Boks coach Jacques Nienaber said of the occasion: "Australia pose a strong threat with their running rugby and they like to keep the ball in play. They will also be playing in front of a charged-up home crowd, so it will be good to have these experienced players back as they know what it takes to perform in big matches."

South Africa have won their last two Tests on the bounce against Australia, as many as they had won in their eight encounters prior (D2, L4). The last time they won more successive games against the Wallabies was a three-game winning stretch from September 2012 to September 2013.

Related items

  • Arteta hails Arsenal resilience as crucial Chelsea clash looms Arteta hails Arsenal resilience as crucial Chelsea clash looms

    Mikel Arteta has praised Arsenal for showing resilience during a difficult period and described his players as a "joy to work with" ahead of a crucial week in the Premier League title race. 

    All three title contenders – Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City – are in action twice this week, with the Gunners taking on Chelsea and Tottenham in two huge London derbies.

    They returned to the top of the table with Saturday's 2-0 win over injury-hit Wolves, but with City possessing a game in hand, the destination of the trophy remains out of their hands. 

    Following a difficult few days in which Arsenal surrendered control of the title race and exited the Champions League against Bayern Munich, Arteta was delighted with their response at Molineux. 

    "If you look at the amount of games we have played in the last few weeks, the type of games we have played, their effort is unquestionable and the results are something else," Arteta said.

    "It's a joy to work with them, and it makes us realise we want to be involved in the big competitions, fighting for the Champions League, fighting for the Premier League with the level that it requires."

    Chelsea's ambitions, meanwhile, are limited to securing qualification for either the Europa League or the Europa Conference League, with their hopes of silverware being dashed on Saturday. 

    They were guilty of spurning several golden opportunities in their 1-0 defeat to City at Wembley Stadium, with their wait for a first trophy under the Todd Boehly regime being extended.

    Mauricio Pochettino, though, is choosing to take the positives from that game as the Blues bid to draw level with Newcastle United and Manchester United in the table on Tuesday.  

    "Now we need to take the positive things from the game," Pochettino said. "This group of players needs these types of moments and games.

    "Now is the time to finish the season in the best way and then see how we can do better next season."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH 

    Arsenal – Leandro Trossard

    Trossard scored in October's reverse fixture as Arsenal fought back from 2-0 down to clinch a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge, and he has provided an invaluable source of goals from the left wing in recent games, with Gabriel Jesus struggling.

    The former Brighton and Hove Albion man is enjoying his most prolific Premier League campaign, with nine goals, and only Bukayo Saka (14) has netted more for the Gunners this term.

    Chelsea – Nicolas Jackson

    Jackson missed several clear-cut chances as Chelsea failed to make the breakthrough against City at Wembley on Saturday, and he is perhaps running out of chances to show he can be the Blues' long-term solution in that number nine role.

    Jackson's 10 Premier League goals this season have come from a total of 13.98 expected goals (xG), giving him an underperformance of -3.98. Only Dominic Calvert Lewin (-5.98) and Darwin Nunez (-4.1) have underperformed their underlying numbers by a greater margin.

    MATCH PREDICTION – ARSENAL WIN

    Arsenal have only lost one of their last eight Premier League games against Chelsea (five wins, two draws), going unbeaten through their last four against them. That is their longest such streak versus the Blues since they went 19 matches against them without defeat between 1995 and 2005.

    Chelsea are unbeaten in their last eight Premier League games (four wins, four draws) and have scored multiple goals in each of their last six. However, that run could come to a halt at the Emirates, with Arsenal possessing a strong record in the biggest games this term.

    City and Liverpool have already left north London defeated this season, and Arsenal have not lost back-to-back home Premier League games since April 2022. Chelsea should be competitive, but the Gunners cannot afford to miss this chance to pull clear of their rivals. 

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Arsenal 51%

    Chelsea 22.5%

    Draw 26.5%

  • England tap into knowledge of Brian Ashton to play entertaining brand of rugby England tap into knowledge of Brian Ashton to play entertaining brand of rugby

    England have been tapping into the knowledge of veteran attack guru Brian Ashton to achieve their aim of filling Twickenham.

    The Red Roses ran in 14 tries in an 88-10 victory over Ireland that places them on the brink of claiming a sixth consecutive Guinness Women’s Six Nations title when they face France on Saturday.

    A thrilling attacking performance before a 48,778 crowd was born out of the belief that in order to play in front of a full house of Twickenham at next year’s home World Cup, they must play appealing rugby.

    And helping them achieve that aim is Ashton, a former England men’s head coach regarded as a visionary in the game whose expertise has been enlisted by Red Roses boss John Mitchell.

    “Brian makes us ask questions. ‘If this is the picture, what is the easiest way that you can take the wins?’” said Dow, who ran in a hat-trick against Ireland.

    “I do think it is about asking those questions and having Brian Ashton available throughout the week…I absolutely adore the man.

    “The way he phrases things almost makes you re-think the philosophy of rugby. I think in the English brand the philosophy is ‘let’s kick to the corner, let’s take the territory’. But is that the philosophy of all rugby? Can we expand that?

    “At the end of the day, professional rugby is a business in its own way. We need to be proving to the whole of England that we can play an exciting brand of rugby.”

    While England march on by overwhelming the opposition in front of them, Ireland’s blowout highlights the gulf in class in the women’s game and affects the credibility of the Six Nations.

    The Red Roses have accumulated 228 points after four rounds and France are the only European team capable of taking the wind out of their sails when the rivals clash in Bordeaux.

    “I 100 per cent think teams will catch up and as much as we may be on top now, it is on us to try and work to keep that place and demand more from ourselves,” Dow said.

    “Because as much as we’d love the game to grow, we want to keep the gap ourselves and continue to prove that we can be the best.”

  • John Mitchell: England motivated to fill Twickenham with captivating displays John Mitchell: England motivated to fill Twickenham with captivating displays

    England ran riot against Ireland with head coach John Mitchell revealing their pivot to an all-action attack is designed to fill Twickenham.

    A crowd of 48,778 watched the Red Roses plunder 14 tries in an 88-10 victory that keeps them on course to win a sixth successive Guinness Women’s Six Nations title when they face France in a likely Grand Slam decider next weekend.

    Unstoppable wing Abby Dow and player of the match Ellie Kildunne completed hat-tricks, but there were fireworks across the field as England delivered on their promise to put on a show.

    Their ultimate aim is to run out at next year’s home World Cup in front of a sold-out Twickenham and Mitchell insisted that can only be achieved by captivating audiences with a style of play no longer based on forward dominance.

    “The girls presented a performance that went up a gear. We asked that of them during the week and they certainly delivered it,” the Kiwi said.

    “We’ve got a drive to fill the stadium on a consistent basis because we want to play here consistently.

    “If we can continue to produce performances like that it won’t be too long before we do fill all the seats. From that point of view, it’s only that style of rugby that will bring people to watch us.

    “We know we have other strengths as well, but this is a good sign and we’re only in the infancy of it.

    “It’s a testament to the girls because they go out and own it and see the rewards from it.”

    England have amassed 228 points after four rounds of the Six Nations, conceding only 20, and the lopsided scoreline at Twickenham is an ugly look for the competition.

    “I’m sure some people will chat about the competitiveness, but at the end of the day we drive ourselves in the way we prepare and that’s all we can focus on,” Mitchell said.

    “We’re not really in a position to judge the competition or its competitiveness. Our standards in the way we prepare have gone up a little bit in terms of level.”

    Ireland head coach Scott Bemand admitted his side were left “shell-shocked” by the game’s dominant force.

    “Tough day at the office. We came up against the market leaders but we’ll dust ourselves down and come back next week,” he said.

    “This was a big game for a youthful group. Could we have predicted a margin like that? Probably not.”

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.