AUCKLAND, New Zealand, October 22 – The wounded Wallabies limped home Saturday with Quade Cooper on crutches and a hard-fought bronze medal to show for a World Cup campaign that failed to deliver on its rich promise.
Australia, who brought one of the youngest squads (average age 26) to New Zealand, learnt harsh lessons in the pressure-cooker environment of tournament rugby and were found wanting in defeats by Ireland and the All Blacks.
But the Wallabies showed great resilience to hold off defending champions South Africa against the odds in the quarter-finals and finished their tournament with a deserved win over Wales in the playoff for third place.
Much of twice champion Australia’s hopes rested on the erratic genius of New Zealand-born playmaker Cooper, the target of mocking Kiwi crowds, whose lacklustre tournament ended with the wretched sight of him on crutches, hobbling to receive his bronze medal.
Australia coach Robbie Deans insisted the concerted media and Kiwi public scrutiny did not distract the 23-year-old Cooper, but evidence suggested otherwise as he floundered under pressure against the the Irish, Springboks and All Blacks.
Yet the mercurial Queensland Reds number 10 was perhaps saving his best until last as he looked in peerless touch in the meaningless bronze final against Wales before disaster struck in the 22nd minute at Eden Park on Friday when he collapsed with a serious knee injury that put his playing career on hold indefinitely.
It was also a frustrating tournament for dashing full-back Kurtley Beale, this season’s John Eales Medal winner as Australia’s best player.
Beale missed two matches, including the semi-final against New Zealand, with hamstring trouble, which flared again against Wales, forcing him off after only 10 minutes of a match the Wallabies went on to win 21-18.
Star flanker David Pocock had his moments, none more than his Herculean effort against South Africa, while wing Digby Ioane fought back from a fractured thumb in the opening victory over Italy to play every minute of the last three games.
More was expected of scrum-half Will Genia, former skipper and blindside flanker Rocky Elsom and lock Dan Vickerman, while James O’Connor, before Sunday’s final, was the tournament’s second-highest point-scorer behind South Africa’s Morne Steyn with 52 points.
Utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper had the distinction of playing every minute of Australia’s seven matches but it was in the set-pieces where Australia struggled, particularly in the pressure matches, their scrum splintering against the All Blacks and Ireland, while their lineouts at times proved vulnerable.
Tactically, Deans’s Australia were mastered by Ireland’s Declan Kidney and New Zealand’s Graham Henry, with the All Blacks convincing 20-6 semi-final winners over the Wallabies.
Deans’s team selections were queried, particularly his determination to stick with the misfiring Cooper and not give the more composed Berrick Barnes additional playing time.
Barnes won man-of-the-match honours against Wales after filling in for the injured Cooper at fly-half and controlling the game with his kicking and passing.
Deans, who was controversially re-appointed for an extra two years before the World Cup, expected a mixed reception from the critics on the team’s return home.
“There will be elements who will be frustrated as we are, that we didn’t achieve more, our sentiments are identical,” Deans said.
“Internally, I’m proud with the way these blokes stuck to the task, particularly this week,” the Kiwi coach added.
“They showed not only what it meant to them, but also there’s a lot of valuable substance in this group that you will see more of over the next few years.”
The Wallabies don’t have long to get over their World Cup hangover as they will be off to play the Barbarians at Twickenham on November 26 and Wales a week later in Cardiff.