On another day, Jake Schatz would have been a great story.
An unheralded back row with the Queensland Reds, he was on holiday in Thailand last week when a spate of injuries prompted Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika to deliver an SOS that resulted in a two-day dash to Dublin.
Schatz has gone above and beyond to answer the call of duty before. In 2011, he lined out for the Reds in a crucial Super Rugby encounter against the Crusaders just days after the passing of his mother Alison from cancer. Thing is, he hasn’t been the only late arrival to this Wallabies tour party. Schatz was an onlooker at Sydney Airport as fellow traveller Kurtley Beale spoke to reporters about repaying the faith Cheika had shown in him with his recall after recent controversies.
Schatz was all but sidelined again yesterday. Overshadowed by the high wattage of Quade Cooper at the team’s daily press conference and the Irish media’s desire to quiz the superstar back about himself, Beale and the head coach who knows these parts so well.
To Beale first.
“From a team point of view, Kurtley offers a lot,” said Cooper who was no stranger to controversies and second chances in the past. “Everybody is happy to have him here. Cheiks speaks highly of him and knows his qualities as a player. None of us are here to play politician. We all have the same focus of improving as rugby players and, from a professional point of view, we’re just focused on beating Ireland in what’s going to be a tough encounter.”
Cooper may play a prominent part in that as the expectation is that he will be one of at least a handful of players drafted in to the first XV after a fatigued-looking Wallaby side fell to France in Paris at the weekend.
The relationship going forward between Cheika and Cooper will be of paramount importance. Cooper was ostracised by Robbie Deans after labelling the team culture as “toxic” and then rehabilitated by Ewen McKenzie who resigned in the wake of a texting scandal involving Beale.
Cheika has prioritised mental toughness and physicality in his first few weeks as head coach since taking over from McKenzie while his Waratahs ten Bernard Foley has, until now, been given the nod at out-half.
“It’s a different opportunity for me to learn under a new coach,” said Cooper who added that his instinctive style will be encouraged rather than frowned upon under the new regime. “Cheiks has got a lot of great ideas and philosophy about rugby. The way he approaches each day is something I have enjoyed. I am looking forward to learning more each day and becoming a better player and better person under his guidance.”
The signs are that the supremely athletic and gifted full-back Israel Folau may be one of those given some down time this weekend and, if that is the case, then the sight of Cooper in the gold jersey will at least make up somewhat for that absence. He talks humbly about holding tackle bags and playing in any position asked of him by his coaches, but the chance to witness a fully fit and tuned in Cooper at out-half in international rugby is one not to be sniffed at.He was part of an Aussie team that easily accounted for Ireland 12 months ago, but the improved fortunes of the hosts was symbolised by the nomination of Jonathan Sexton for the IRB’s player of the year award last week.
Cooper has been as impressed as anybody. “He’s just a class act. He showed throughout the Lions series some of the best football he’s played. He always continues to get better. I’ve always enjoyed playing against him from a personal standpoint. For me, I love the way the plays for an Irish fly-half. He’s not a traditional Irish fly-half who sits in the pocket and kicks. He likes to run. He loves to have a few little trick plays. Being short-listed for IRB Player of the Year is well-deserved.
“Hopefully, we’ll get the best Jonathan Sexton on the weekend and we can overcome that.”
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