Quade Cooper silences critics with quality Test performance in Wallabies' win

Chalk another one up for this extraordinary third decade of the 21st century.

Quade Cooper, at age 33, called into the Wallabies squad originally as cover, having not played a Test in over 1500 days, kicks Australia to victory over the Springboks after the siren, snapping a run of three straight defeats.

An almost unfathomable outcome, in another almost unfathomable year.

While he will forever be remembered for the match-winning penalty in the Wallabies' 28-26 Rugby Championship triumph over South Africa, Cooper's performance was so much more than just the Test's final, defining, deed.

Cooper kicked a perfect eight from eight for a personal haul of 23 points on a night when the Wallabies were outscored three tries to one by the world champions, who looked out of sorts for much of the match, or at least when they weren't mauling their way over from close range.

The veteran playmaker kept his game incredibly simple - save for a fizzing early inside pass that went to ground -- and did exactly what coach Dave Rennie had asked of him in a match that was dominated by; indiscipline from both sides, the whistle of referee Luke Pearce as a result, and the TMO.

But when the Wallabies lost their way, Cooper was prepared to tuck the ball under his arm and run at the line. He also found space in behind the charging Boks defence, as Rennie had tried and failed to have his troops do in three Tests against the All Blacks.

In doing so, Cooper repaid Rennie's faith after the Wallabies coach had welcomed him into the squad after a coffee in mid-July.

The Kiwi hasn't stopped singing his praises ever since.

"He's been fantastic since he's come in, contributed massively to discussions, at training, and based on form it was hard to leave him out," Rennie said of Cooper. "His confidence, his experience, made a difference; we didn't want to overplay tonight, we were playing a team that doesn't want to play with the ball and we had to be prepared to kick a little bit of ball back.

"So he had a big part to play in that."

Not that he cares these days but the 33-year-old playmaker, in stepping up to lead a desperate Wallabies side to victory, also made more than just a few doubters - including this one - eat humble pie.

"The first thing was I looked up and I had a kick from a similar spot just before that and I only just had the legs to get it over," Cooper told Stan Sport of his match-winner.

"And then this was the 80th minute, I looked at it, and had a little chat to myself, said 'is this your ego saying you want to take the kick or is it what's in the benefit of the team?' I looked over and had a little chat to Hodgey [Reece Hodge] as well, he backed me; so if your peers are backing you, you've got to back yourself as well.

"But we put a lot of effort and work into these sorts of things, it's not necessarily about the kick itself but being on the grind every day.

"And the challenge is now, when you're at a high height, is being able to just maintain and not get ahead of yourself; go back to your everyday [approach], stay in it, appreciate it for what it is -- it's a great team win, it was one of the all-time Test matches that I've played in -- and just move onto the next one."

While Cooper's selection had stunned the rugby world in the lead-up, there was never going to be any shocks when it came to the Springboks' game plan. But the usual pinpoint kicking accuracy of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard - who also missed two penalties and a conversion on an off night from the tee - was nowhere to be found.

Skipper Siya Kolisi, meanwhile, was one of two South African players to be sin-binned, the captain given a 10-minute breather for a lifting tackle on Wallabies fullback Tom Banks early in the match, while Willie le Roux was later shown yellow for a deliberate knock-down.

But the Wallabies weren't exactly saintly themselves as first Matt Philip was sin-binned for repeated maul infringements and then, at a critical point in the second half, Folau Fainga'a followed for a no-arms cannonball tackle.

It was nothing short of stupid from the Wallabies hooker, given the field position and how dominant the South African maul had been from close range. Fainga'a, too, could have easily also been sin-binned a couple of times earlier for similar tackles.

The Test saw 28 penalties blown in total, 17 of which were conceded by the home side.

The Australians otherwise again had their problems at the breakdown and also struggled to exit their own end after points. They continue to be their own worst enemy a lot of the time, not least of which when they opt for little passes close to the defensive line and then fail to support the ball-carrier with strong cleanouts.

The Wallabies did however adjust to the game that they knew was coming their way, playing for territory and taking the points on offer when they got to the right end of the field.

They really only had two try-scoring opportunities, one of which Andrew Kellaway finished for his fourth try in six Tests, while the other, deep in the second half, was derailed by a brilliant tackle from Springboks replacement Damian Willemse that looked like it might be enough for the visitors to secure the win.

But in a chaotic closing few minutes when Reece Hodge had seemingly kicked away the Wallabies' last chance at possession, a loose ball was squeezed out of a scrum with Nic White able to get over the tackled player to secure the final opportunity which Cooper would convert.

The two sides don't have to wait long for another crack at each other, with their second Test to be played in Brisbane in six days' time. The world champions, knowing they have two Tests to close out the Championship against the All Blacks, will be desperately seeking a far more complete performance at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.

But the Springboks refused to use their two weeks' quarantine as an excuse for their rusty performance, with coach Jacques Nienaber saying he thought Australia "deserved the win".

"I don't think we were great today, and when I say that I don't want to take anything away from Australia, I just thought that we were a little bit off our game and especially from a discipline point of view," Nienaber said.

"We created opportunities...we scored three tries [and] there was an opportunity for us to get maybe two more tries, and we didn't finish. So I don't think it was a polished performance, so we will have to fix those things and especially look at our discipline."

The Wallabies will have to go up a level, too. It is a victory they will take confidence from given it shows they can play in a fashion to which they are not accustomed too, but one they won't want to get carried away with either.

The night, however, belonged to Cooper.

For so long the bad boy of Australian rugby, who clashed with coaches, administrators, and sometimes even teammates, Cooper appears to have found himself in recent years, having made key changes off the field.

Whether he can play a role in the longer term, through to the next World Cup, remains to be seen.

Right now, it's clear that Cooper's value to this raw Wallabies squad is clearly far more than just that of off-field mentor for the group's emerging fly-half contingent. Given the simple fashion in which he went about his business on the Gold Coast, going virtually error free and perfect from the kicking tee, he might just be the exact man the Wallabies need right now.

James O'Connor will be available for selection next week, but after Cooper's deeds on Sunday night it's hard to see how Rennie won't retain the 33-year-old Queenslander in Brisbane, particularly on what is his home patch.

There has been no bigger figure in the Australian game than Cooper ever since he spearheaded the Reds' 2011 Super Rugby triumph, on that same deck, with a seemingly never-ending bag of attacking tricks.

Even when he was away from the Wallabies squad, Cooper has always held a presence either through Instagram or his recent citizenship struggle, and has always found a way to remain on the fringes of consideration, refusing to announce his Test retirement like many of his former Test teammates.

But on Sunday night, Cooper at last again delivered the Test performance his star profile had always lacked. And he deserves all the plaudits that come his way.