The surprise returns from Japan of veteran Wallabies backs Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi have suddenly created welcome headaches for the Australian selection panel.
The former Reds stars guided the Wallabies to a stunning 28-26 win over world champions South Africa on Sunday, a result that kept Australia’s Rugby Championship campaign alive and propelled Dave Rennie’s side from seventh to fifth in the world rankings.
Surely, the pair will keep their starting spots at 10 and 12 for Saturday’s rematch with the smarting Springboks at Suncorp Stadium.
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Quade’s emotional SBW tribute
But the bigger question now is what it all means for the shape of the Wallabies backline in the mid to long-term.
The obsession with the Rugby World Cup tends to dominate these discussions and Australia now has three viable options at five-eighth.
James O’Connor is fit again and available for selection this weekend but may have to settle for a bench spot behind Cooper.
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And then there is 21-year-old Noah Lolesio, excellent in the series win over a second string France but exposed in a well beaten Bledisloe Cup side.
“James is two years younger than Quade, it’s a little bit easier for him to push through to the World Cup, being 31,” former Wallaby Morgan Turinui said on Stan Sport’s Rugby Heaven.
“Quade’s 33 although in that brand new Wallabies jersey at the weekend it’s as good as I’ve seen him look.
“I don’t know if it’s the jersey, the colour – he’s in bloody good nick, that’s for sure.
“His issue is he’s playing second division in Japan. Yes he’s got the great Will Genia to accompany him at times but Nic White’s playing with Noah Lolesio at the Brumbies, Tate (McDermott) gets to play with James O’Connor week in, week out.
“And when you count all those matches between now and the World Cup, that’s a huge advantage for cohesion, for shared knowledge and experience for those sorts of players.
“You don’t throw Noah out – Noah’s benefiting from being around the squad.”
Turinui said Nic White and O’Connor would be his preferred Wallabies halves pairing at the next World Cup if forced to make a crystal ball prediction.
But he added Tate McDermott was developing into an “absolute gun” and that Will Harrison, Ben Donaldson and Carter Gordon deserved mention alongside Lolesio as the country’s best young pivots.
Turinui also urged Cooper to back up his Hollywood script comeback.
“Quade, one week’s great, let’s see some consistent performance, that’ll be great to see in the weeks to come,” Turinui said.
“That was almost the most significant individual performance, definitely in the Wallabies jersey, that I’ve seen.
“To come back from second division in Japan, he hasn’t played a game since April, had a coffee with Dave Rennie and came back into the squad somewhat in a mentoring role.
“He was masterful in managing the game and then kicking the goal to win it – that is a huge individual performance from Quade Cooper over months and on the weekend.
“The other side of it is it’s a little bit of an indictment on the high performance plan and Australian rugby pathways at the moment. It’s worrying that situation came about.
“And yes, COVID is the great excuse in the moving of players and things like that but there’s a few things that say Rugby Australia need to go back to the drawing board a bit about pathways of players into the Wallabies and making them winning Wallabies.”
Meanwhile, Cooper’s longtime halves partner Will Genia had no doubt that his close pal was capable of playing at the 2023 World Cup in France.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young – if Quade’s still committed in terms of his mind, his body and his performance, there’s no reason why not,” Genia told Tim Horan on Rugby Heaven.
“James is in the exact same situation – they’re in such a good spot mentally and physically – it’s more a case of can they stay consistent with that and consistent in their performances?
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“Because obviously you’ve got a young fella in Noah coming through who in just youth has more freedom to want to go out there and express himself.
“So it’ll be an interesting time to see how it plays out for all three of them.”
Further out in the backline, Kerevi has arguably had an even bigger impact than Cooper in resurrecting Australia’s flagging fortunes.
At the peak of his powers, Kerevi gives the Wallabies go forward from midfield as well as a mature head to galvanise a relatively young squad.
The question now is who partners him in midfield?
Len Ikitau performed well against South Africa, making the most of his opportunity as Hunter Paisami celebrates the birth of his first child.
“We’ve seen Hunter at 12 and 13, I think a lot of us see him naturally as a 12 but Len Ikitau was good,” Turinui said.
“Really good defensively, made good decisions, some good penetrative running… he’ll get better and better.
“I wouldn’t mind having a look at the two running back style guys with Kerevi and Paisami at some stage, just to try something and see what it looks like.
“That means it will probably have an influence on our selection at 15 as well, if you’ve just got one out and out ball player at 10 and you don’t have anyone really with a different skillset in the midfield then it will affect 15.
“I’d love to see that at some stage. Isn’t it great that we’re talking about all these selection challenges?
“Nine, 10, centres now – it’s a great problem for Dave Rennie and his selection panel to have.”
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