Quade Cooper was sacked by the Reds, left to play club rugby in Brisbane, but now he is back in the Wallabies and loving life again. Jim Tucker looks at Cooper’s remarkable comeback.
Quade Cooper was so far on the outer reaches of the rugby galaxy that even his invitation to a reunion of former Wallabies would have taken a week to reach him in the days of the humble airmailed letter.
You’ve got to love sport for delivering the bewitching twists and unforeseen scripts that it does.
No one in Australian rugby saw the Cooper comeback coming at 33.
Not even Cooper. That’s the very reason it had a chance to unfold.
He had to give up dreams of playing for the Wallabies again before finding the true happiness that has led him to the gold jersey again.
For a player so often consumed by rugby as the barometer of his life, it was discovering a healthy balance in Japan and in second division rugby that has reshaped him. He found enjoyment without being a Wallaby wannabe.
This is certainly not a story about Cooper finding himself atop Mount Fuji or finding direction from some cult scripture.
He did find the carnivore diet, he did find a zeal for training and rebuilding his body like never before and he did reset his daily drive to keep pushing with nobody watching but himself. He took up golf. He buried some ego like he was filling in divots.
Maturity is one word that keeps being thrown at this latest version of Cooper or “Aussie Quade” to give him his proper title now that his odd Australian citizenship impasse has been sorted out.
“He’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him. He’s a contented guy. He’s the same old Quadie in some respects but he’s matured in a lot of other ways as we all do,” long-time friend and halves partner Will Genia said.
Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen went for the “maturity” word too now he’s not trying to exploit the lack of it as an opponent.
“He’s always been a major talent but he’s probably got in his own way,” Hansen said.
“He understands his own identity which I think is massive. A lot of times our young players, and older ones too, come into the game and all they’ve got is rugby and when the rugby doesn’t go well they struggle.
“He understands his identity not just as a rugby player but as a brother, a friend, and he organises his rugby around those identities as well. He's more secure in who he is.
“You saw that in his performance because better people make better players.”
Cooper’s composed Test comeback to upset South Africa’s world champions 28-26 on the final hooter with that nerveless penalty goal on the Gold Coast has thrown up all sorts of notions.
Experienced, smart first five are worth their weight in gold. Wallabies coach Dave Rennie discovered that every day he saw Cooper’s communication, understanding of plays, subtle tweaks of alignment and direction at Wallabies’ training when he was brought in as back-up.
The hard part was getting a recall to the Wallabies squad for the first time in four years. Once on the “inside”, it was a no contest when comparing a 70-Test veteran who has seen just about every high, deadend and drama in the game with a raw 21-year-old like Noah Lolesio.
As Cooper himself poignantly said on the eve of his comeback Test he’s experienced the “high highs and the low lows”.
Former Wallaby Nick Stiles coached Cooper and Genia at the Kintetsu Liners in Japan for the past two seasons.
“There was a lengthy period in Quade’s career where he had injuries or didn’t play that many games, even in that 2015-16 stint with Toulon when he wasn’t always selected,” Stiles said.
“In Japan, he played each week but also had the time to really get his body right. We set up a Super Rugby-level strength-and-fitness program and he went beyond with his extras so he’s reaping the benefits.”
Playing 80 strong minutes against the World Cup winners as your first match in four months was some feat.
Last year’s cancelled Japanese season meant Cooper had eight months off. He reconnected with friends and family in Brisbane while also diving into his longest-ever period of body preparation.
“What I had been putting out on the field was less than I could max out at. You only make surface-level gains in a regular pre-season so I got to train at a level above to make some real improvements,” Cooper said.
The physical side of things may be giving him the means but the power of his mind has been just as important in this rebirth.
He has enjoyed being around young Wallabies backs like Lolesio, Len Ikitau, Tate McDermott and Co.
“Hopefully, I provide an example of what it takes,” Cooper said.
“I know where I fell short in the past and hopefully now I’m in a position where I can lead from the front in those areas and provide a little bit of guidance.”
There was a stage in Cooper’s career where he was impatient with certain players around him who were less skilled. He self-corrected in that area too when he found himself in club rugby for the 2018 season.
As coach, Brad Thorn wanted to rebuild the Queensland Reds as a team, not one built around a star figure like Cooper. There were other reasons, of course, but it left Cooper like the rock star consigned to pub gigs at club level.
Few bona fide stars have been such huge contributors to club rugby as he was to Souths that season. He didn't let the Reds win by spitting the dummy. He dazzled at times and ran on water and the kicking tee for teammates at other times. And got paid his full, juicy Reds contract for doing it. He occasionally gave the team talk like a coach before games.
“That season of club football was probably the first time I enjoyed passing on knowledge,” Cooper said.
“At Super Rugby and Test level, I would get frustrated when someone didn’t understand their role or missed a jump on a play or forgot a little bit of knowledge.
“To me, you should automatically know that at that level. I think that was an error in judgment from me instead of putting in the time when everyone learns in different ways.”
Playing with labourers and factory workers, pure amateur rugby players, re-tuned him to get enjoyment out of seeing others learn. He found patience to teach.
All Blacks first five Dan Carter and Wallabies inside centre Matt Giteau were both 33 when they squared off in the 2015 World Cup final.
Carter was still winning trophies at 36 in Japan and Giteau raised more silverware with the Los Angeles Giltinis in the US at the venerable age of 38 in August.
Cooper is now 33. He’ll be 35 at the 2023 World Cup and potentially joining the ranks of rocking chair rugby at 38 is way in the future.
“It seems like an age away but it creeps up quickly. Understanding what the body is capable of, and how it is feeling right now, playing at 38 would be a breeze,” Cooper said.
“But, I don’t want to be playing at 38 just to be playing the game. I want to be deserving of my spot.”
That’s the thing. A lot can happen in the 20-plus Test between now and the 2023 World Cup.
As ever, the most significant testing ground is to come. If Rennie does make Cooper his top gun that means five tests against the All Blacks in 2022-23 and all the same old questions.
Cooper has won just twice in the nine tests in which he’s started against the All Blacks and not since 2011.
Certain things never change with the long memories of Kiwi rugby fans. Some of those in black supporters’ jerseys had only half finished their night when they lapped up the 39-0 win by the All Blacks over Argentina on the Gold Coast.
They stayed around for their second favourite sport...booing Cooper. It was a minority, for sure, but the hint that some Kiwis never forget the player who kneed "King Richie”.
With maturity has come resilience too and the understanding "that you are learning throughout the journey”.
He admits there are “things he’s said and done” in his career which a 33-year-old Cooper would handle differently to the 23-year-old Cooper.
"I apply the same process to every day, you wake up to be a better man and a better player.”