British & Irish Lions
Connolly backs Cooper for fly-half role
May 2, 2013
Connolly says the fact Cooper has been defending at fullback for Queensland could be problematic © Getty Images
The Wallabies need the attacking creativity and well-grooved combination of Quade Cooper and Will Genia to unlock a big, bruising British & Irish Lions backline, according to former Test coach John Connolly.
While Genia will be the first Australian selected, fly-half remains the most contentious position for next month's blockbuster three-Test series with Cooper competing with James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale, Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano.
But Connolly feels the Queensland Reds' playmakers are clearly the biggest threats to break up the hard-hitting defence of the Lions.
A feature of Lions coach Warren Gatland's squad selections this week was his preference for huge three-quarters - highlighted by the likes of 100kg-plus Jamie Roberts, Manu Tuialagi, George North and Alex Cuthbert - and the Wallabies would be hard pressed to combat them with a power-game.
"What hit me was the size of the backline," Connolly told AAP. "They will put a very big midfield and wingers on the field. It's a big side."
With Cooper defending at fullback for the Reds, Connolly admitted his selection was a difficult and pivotal one for coach Robbie Deans, who wants his No. 10 to tackle in the front line. "That doesn't help Cooper," the Wallabies 2007 World Cup mentor said.
While Deans has been effusive in his praise of most contenders in the media, his comments about the 38-Test playmaker, who last year labelled the Wallabies environment "toxic", have been supportive but largely reserved in comparison.
He hinted to British journalists on Wednesday night that Cooper may be left out of the initial 25-man squad selected on May 26 so he can play against the Lions for Queensland on June 8 in a late audition for the final 31-man squad.
For all of Cooper's question marks, Connolly feels the halves area may be Australia's biggest advantage against a well-equipped Lions outfit.
Welshman Mike Phillips is favoured to be halfback, meaning they'll likely sport a new combination as Ireland's Jonny Sexton and English young gun Owen Farrell vie for the No. 10 jersey.
"We can definitely compete in that area," Connolly said. "You'd say Genia has the wood on Phillips and the way Genia and Cooper play together, which is different to a traditional nine-10 combination, won't be as familiar to defend. That could be Australia's point of difference. Hopefully it is Cooper. He is a threat."
Beale, who makes his Super Rugby return for the Melbourne Rebels on Friday night, is the selection wildcard.
Deans was mightily impressed with his efforts as Wallabies fly-half late last season but he is also the best proven fullback option ahead of uncapped Brumby Jesse Mogg.
Connolly sees the Tim Horan-like James O'Connor and in-form Brumbies No. 12 Christian Lealiifano as good options at inside centre, along with Reds centre Ben Tapuai, which would give Cooper more ball-playing support than the hard-running Pat McCabe.