The first taste of Super Rugby in over a year for former Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper resulted in a season-building 34-27 away win for a Rebels side, who were under the pump early against a tough Brumbies side.
It wasn’t the same Quade Cooper that spearheaded the Reds in 2017, who had to try to do everything himself, it was all about the subtle touches that aided the Rebels attack without overplaying the situation. Genia played the maestro role, pulling the strings with three try assists that could have been five had two other opportunities been taken.
The level of execution was much higher than the corresponding opening Australian derby last year, and it was discernibly noticeable how much the attacking depth improved for both sides.
Everything was much flatter with runners bringing pace onto the ball, more ball-playing at the line, challenging defenders and hitting gain line with strong carries in the opening twenty minutes.
The Rebels attack was so flat it was almost forward at times, playing completely on top of the defence. We have not seen an Aussie side play this flat in years. With a star-studded backline, this is a smart tactic for the Rebels to use when their pack probably won’t dominate through carries.
Australian rugby, and by extension the Wallabies, have been plagued by depth issues in recent years (too much of it), both sides looked far more impressive with direct play from first phase attack and in phase play.
The Rebels had no right to be in the match in the first half after the Brumbies had total control early. What was a 22-19 lead could easily have been 22-7 had the home side not adapted their exit strategy.
With the wind at their backs, long driving kicks by Lealiifano had worked in pinning the Rebels deep, but a change of approach to try a contestable open side bomb turned costly as the visitors’ backs ignited on the counter when Speight lost the contest. Off the back of that break, Genia’s long ball gave centre Tom English enough time to get over from close range.
The Brumbies then tried a cross-field kick from midfielder Irae Simone in another exit situation, which was miscued and cost another seven points as the ball bounced into the hands of wing Jack Maddocks. They squandered a 10-0 lead on their own and gave up 12 points too easily.
Late in the first half, the Brumbies tried to attack width by resorting to playing with more depth and began to lose effectiveness. The halves of Lealiifano and Powell lost control of the contest with some of their decisions and execution misfires.
When Lealiifano kicked out on the full early in the second half, the Rebels had all the running for the first 10 minutes. The Rebels kept coming hard with their flat attack off Genia and Cooper.
One of Cooper’s best feature in this game was his simple short passing game that allowed centre Billy Meakes to flourish and make plays on the edge. On this pullback pass, Cooper is flat as he was all game, but squares and holds the defence nicely.
Irae Simone (12) bites on English even though Lealiifano is there and Tevita Kuridrani (13) is turned in outside. To Simone’s credit, he bails late on the tackle and stays alive, helping the Brumbies recover but Billy Meakes (12) finds Maddocks out on the edge with the cutout pass and he steaks away down to the five.
The Rebels score off another flat ball from Genia to a rampaging Anaru Rangion the next phase from close range.
Another pullback pass from static ball opened up the Brumbies again, which would have resulted in a try to English if not for a bombed finish.
The Rebels began to open up the set-piece playbook in the last 10 minutes, using a ‘Cipriani special’ – an overload play with the 10 and the blind winger running sweep lines out the back. Cooper again showed nice touch on a short pass to Maddocks on the edge.
On the next phase, a Genia dink over the top was regathered and gave the Rebels possession inside the five.
Maddocks is calling for it on the bottom of the screen but Cooper restrains himself from going for the cross-field kick or throwing a long sailing rainbow.
Simply passing to Meakes forces Kuridrani to hold, who you can see in the first shot is beginning to slide but is turned in by the time Meakes makes the kick. By taking the short option, Cooper ensures the Brumbies centre can’t reach Maddocks while the ball sails in the air on a risky long pass or kick.
Maddocks’ acrobatic grab from Meakes’ chip kick ices the game and puts the Rebels two scores ahead.
It was a measured performance from Cooper who showed poise, control, and trust. His only turnover came when he made a break on a kick return and his offload was intercepted. It was a performance labeled by the commentators ‘the most commanding flyhalf performance in three years’.
There will be much more room for Cooper to expand his game as the season unfolds, but right now the Rebels look to have found a nice balance, running what looks to be the flattest attack in Super Rugby. Quade is back in Super Rugby and firing with his old partner Genia, and he has put forward a compelling case as the best 10 in Australia already.