Cooper cleared, but back-line dilemma looms large for Deans
Lucky escape ... Quade Cooper has avoided a kneeing charge on All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. Photo: Getty Images
QUADE COOPER has escaped a World Cup suspension, but that does not mean Wallabies coach Robbie Deans is without selection dilemmas for the early tournament pool matches.
The Wallabies five-eighth is available for all World Cup games after yesterday being cleared of a kneeing charge on All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. But the Wallabies selectors have to work out if any of the winning back-line contingent on Saturday night deserves to be dropped for winger James O'Connor, who missed the Tri Nations series triumph for disciplinary reasons. If O'Connor replaces someone who does not warrant demotion, it could cause angst within the Wallabies' playing group - especially as every member of the Australian back line excelled at Suncorp Stadium.
The Wallabies were deeply concerned that Cooper would be hit with a suspension, especially as a video replay showed Cooper kneeing McCaw in the head after the ball had left the ruck during the second half. However, Sanzar judiciary official Jannie Lubbe dismissed the foul-play charge after a 45-minute hearing.
The Wallabies claim Tri Nations trophy
Shiny silverware ... the Wallabies celebrate with the Tri-Nations trophy. Photo: Getty Images
While Cooper was relieved, the All Blacks camp were unimpressed with his actions - especially as it is the latest in an ongoing, 10-month battle between himself and McCaw. The All Blacks were not impressed when in the final minutes of last year's Wallabies Hong Kong triumph, Cooper pushed and shoved McCaw in the All Blacks in-goal. Coach Graham Henry yesterday made it clear he was unhappy with Cooper's actions on Saturday night.
''I was disappointed [with the incident] as I thought it was outside the spirit of the game,'' Henry said. ''It's happened before, it creates an irritation, obviously.''
However, Cooper said the kneeing was an accident, as he was attempting to get off the ground to return to play. Cooper added that he had no issue with McCaw.
''I don't see any history there,'' Cooper said. ''It's rugby and blokes are coming into contact belting each other week in, week out, and it just happens two blokes come in contact more often than not. Richie's a flanker and his job is to slow down our ball and do anything he can to disrupt our momentum, and my job is to keep our team on the front foot. We've both got jobs that oppose each other, so we both have to be mindful of the rules.''
A relieved Deans said Cooper had to be careful. ''There's a next generation of kids watching that game and it's important that the way we play the game is something we're proud of,'' Deans said.
The Wallabies' World Cup squad assemble in Sydney tomorrow, relieved they have all players intact, but the selectors must soon decide whether to play O'Connor in the first pool match against Italy in Auckland on September 11. O'Connor's goal-kicking will probably save him, leading to the difficult decision of dropping either centre Anthony Faingaa or winger Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Ashley-Cooper looked more comfortable on the wing than at outside-centre, having his best performance for the Wallabies this season, while Faingaa was among the Wallabies' best, effecting several great tackles, including one crucial try-saver in the first half.
Against the Springboks in Durban, where Faingaa played off the bench, and then against the All Blacks, the Reds centre has been one of the most tenacious Wallabies. He does not deserve to be dropped. But as shown when Cooper missed a crucial penalty shot in the final quarter, goal-kicking is imperative, especially in World Cups, and O'Connor is more consistent than his teammate.
There is unlikely to be any tinkering with the Wallabies' pack, as the front row excelled, while Dan Vickerman and Radike Samo revitalised lineout and back-row play.
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