Wallabies watch: Foley-Cooper duel one of many selection battles in SCG derby

Super Rugby
Rugbycomau
by Beth Newman and Emma Greenwood

Quade Cooper vs Bernard Foley might be the headline act at the SCG on Saturday night but the flyhalf battle is just the start of a host of potential Test match-ups.

It’s been two years since Cooper and Foley found themselves facing off in Super Rugby after the Rebels 10 spent a year playing club rugby in Queensland.

Cooper and his combination with Will Genia have changed the shape of the Rebels’ attack this year, with their flat approach putting all the pressure on their defensive sides.

Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said Cooper had clearly made an impact with the Rebels since linking up with the club this season.

“He's had a real effect on that team, playing very flat to the line, really good combination with Will,” he said.

“They really hold the key to a lot of their play. Again, play the game differently to Bernard and it'll be a really interesting contest.”

Foley and Cooper have always had different styles - Cooper the traditionally more enigmatic - and Gibson said Saturday would be a chance for the rivals to show their trademarks against each other. 

“It's about both players putting on their skill sets,” he said.

“Quade approaches the game a little bit differently - he's got excellent vision, he's playing very flat to the line, brings a lot to the game.

“When he’s operating off a real front-foot platform, he's going to look good.

“Part of our challenge is to make sure that ball is disrupted, he's not getting it on a plate.”


Rebels centre Billy Meakes, who also has a chance to make a World Cup push going up against Karmichael Hunt at 12, said Cooper would step up to the challenge.

"I know when we play the Australian teams there's obviously that little bit of edge, everyone's playing against their mates and people they know quite well and Wallaby selection is up as well,” he said.

"But I don’t think it will be any different for Quadey this week, he's a pretty cool cat with how he goes about his business.

"I think he's been playing extraordinarily well but I haven't noticed anything different, he just really cares about what we're doing as a team.

"He's got a huge input into the way we want to play and the boys are definitely feeding off that.

There are potential Wallabies being pitted against each other almost every across the two sides’ backlines.

Outside of that 10 battle, Meakes and Hunt will go head-to-head at inside centre, a position that has become far more open in the wake of the Israel Folau drama.

Usual Wallabies 12 Kurtley Beale has shifted to fullback in Folau’s absence and he has found success at 15 before, both at NSW and the Wallabies.

Meakes has kept his focus short this season after finding himself too preoccupied with his Test hopes in seasons past but a debut is something he desperately wants to achieve.

"It's not something that I'm embarrassed to say, that I want to play for the Wallabies and I want to play at the World Cup,” he said.

“But I'm perfectly honest with myself that if I reflect on last year, I probably thought about the Wallabies too much and I wasn't focusing on playing the best I could for the Rebels.

"As soon as that starts to get blurred, there's a direct correlation with performances (at Super Rugby level) and if I want to play for the Wallabies, then I've got to be playing well for the Rebels and it's as simple as that.

"I'm just trying to block out the Wallabies stuff as much as possible to be honest.

"But when I'm thinking about how I'm playing, I just need to be the best no.12 I can be for the Rebels and the other stuff will look after itself.”

Dane Haylett-Petty loomed as the first-choice at 15, having played there in Folau’s absence for the Wallabies last year, but Beale could put his hand up with consistent performances in the second half of the season.

Even in the Rebels outfit, Reece Hodge and Jack Maddocks could be no. 15 Test prospects.

Genia will be tested by two Test rivals in NSW starter Jake Gordon and long-time deputy Nick Phipps, a pivotal contest.

The forward pack, too, will provide some key Wallabies battles.


Adam Coleman and Rob Simmons have fought it out in the second row, a department that is among the most hotly-contested when it comes to World Cup spots.

Luke Jones has made waves for the Rebels since returning to Australia and he will face off against Jack Dempsey in that blindside flanker spot.

Dempsey stormed back into the Wallabies matchday squad on last year’s Spring Tour and their clash will be an intriguing face-off of two versions of blindside flanker.

WALLABIES BATTLES: WHERE TO WATCH

SECOND ROW

Adam Coleman vs Rob Simmons

Coleman is the incumbent Wallabies lineout caller but Rob Simmons is in career-best form with the Waratahs this season. The Rebels and Waratahs' lineouts have functioned incredibly well this season and Saturday night will be a big test for both sides.

BACK ROW

Jack Dempsey vs Luke Jones, Isi Naisarani

Jack Dempsey is a fearless, ball-carrying no. 6, playing in contrast to Melbourne's Jones. Jones adds plenty of height at the lineout for the Rebels and is a relentless defender, something that could trouble the Waratahs. Naisarani will also be looking to make an impact and could end up being a direct competitor with Dempsey for a no. 8 spot in the World Cup, such is the depth of backrowers that Australia has to pick from.

INSIDE BACKS

Jake Gordon, Nick Phipps vs Will Genia

Gordon and Phipps have both benefitted from an incredibly competitive state battle and Genia will be the ultimate litmus test for both of them in this battle. Genia's combination with Cooper has been intimidating this season and if they get it right again, it will only cement Genia as the no. 1 Australian halfback.

Bernard Foley vs Quade Cooper

It's been a while since Foley has had a threat like Cooper to test himself against. The Waratahs 10 has barely been troubled since Cooper was last in the Wallabies squad in 2017 but Cooper has proven himself a more developed footballer with the Rebels and he will put Foley to the test on Saturday night.

Billy Meakes vs Karmichael Hunt

The no. 12 door has opened a little bit wider for these two in the wake of the Israel Folau controversy. Meakes has been in superb form this season, linking up with Cooper and Genia, and both he and Hunt are very defensively minded. Expect some bruising efforts from both of them.

Back three

Jack Maddocks, Reece Hodge vs Kurtley Beale

Kurtley Beale's role at the World Cup will be a much-debated one but if he plays well at 15, the case to keep him at fullback will only get stronger. He has been patchy at 12 this season and with plenty of competition inside, a position switch might just benefit him. Hodge has proven himself a capable fullback and could elevate himself with a strong performance as well. While Maddocks is generally considered a winger, his background is at 15 and he could be an outside chance as well.