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From wunderkind to man of steel: The amazing journey of Quade Cooper


It’s been fascinating and often infuriating to watch the development of Quade Cooper’s rugby career, writes Michael Blucher.

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It was his reaction to the winning kick that was most telling.

In his youth, there probably would have been cartwheels or backflips – something expressive, something showman-like.

But not now, not at the age of 33. Last Sunday, as the angled 45m penalty kick sailed between the posts in CBus stadium on the Gold Coast , Quade Cooper calmly clasped his hands together, peered down at the ground and braced himself for the onset of jubilant backslapping teammates.

It was as measured as Cooper had even been in 70 plus Tests.

First he had taken the match-deciding kicking duties in his stride, and now the successful execution. Great, Australia had beaten South Africa, he’d nailed eight from eight, but it was just a game of footy. Do your best, and come what may. This time, success. Next time, who knows? Professional rugby player. It’s what I do. It’s not who I am.

Not now.

It’s been fascinating to watch Quade Cooper’s 15 year transformation from precocious rugby wunderkind to mature, considered elder statesman of the game.

He’s always been “Box Office”. From the day he first set foot on the No 1 oval at Churchie in 2005, he was compelling viewing – a gifted athlete who made the difficult look simple, and the implausible, possible.

But like with so many teenage prodigies, what was missing was the emotional scaffolding to support his rapid rise. Too much adulation, not enough education. Don’t worry about that maths exam, Quade. We’ll look after that – TSS at Southport this week. you go practice your kicking.

Like AFL superstar in the making Ben Cousins, years ago, being allowed to wear white sand shoes to school at Perth’s prestigious Wesley College, Quade Cooper was learning from a very young age that the rules that applied to others didn’t necessarily apply to him. He was special.

The system was setting him up for potential longer term failure.

By the age of 18, New Zealand-born Cooper was playing for the Reds, Wallaby honours followed a couple of years later, on the spring tour to Europe, his cameo off the bench against Italy in Pad-ova confirming what many already knew – he was a freak talent.

But there was those within the inner of sanctum of Australian rugby who questioned his attitude – the swagger, the sense of entitlement, the “do what you want, come as you please” approach to training, playing, and touring. His equally youthful, equally gifted “partners in crime”, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, were developing similiar reputations.

It was almost as if they believed the rules that applied to others, didn’t necessarily apply to them.

Imagine that? Who would have thought?

The following December, after another successful spring tour of Europe, it all came unravelled when Cooper was arrested and charged with burglary at the end of an impressively long day of celebrations on the Gold Coast.

It didn’t matter that there were extenuating circumstances, most of which stemmed from the dangerous mix of alcohol and the sleeping tablets he’d taken on the flight home from Europe the day before. Nor that the tablets – Benzodiazepine – had been administered by a member of the Australian team medical staff.

In the eyes of his detractors, Quade was a goose, a criminal, a thief who wasn’t fit to ever again represent Queensland let alone Australia. His contract should be torn up, his passport stamped – NTTA. Never to tour again.

As painful and humiliating as that experience was, in the broader sense of Quade Cooper’s life, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to him.

Locked in a police station at 4am, not knowing where you were, or how you’d got there, your eyes still stingy capsicum spray, provided a platform for reflection. Perhaps those rules did apply after all?

Cooper privately concedes that if he didn’t stumble badly at 21, he probably would have continued to make poor choices and poor decisions.

But having the awareness that he needed to change was just the start. He still had to develop the habits and skills to take him to a better place. And stay there.

That was never going to happen quickly, not for somebody who didn’t trust easily. Quade loved kids, he was in his element around them, but he was inherently cautious, even suspicious of adult motives. He needed strong reason to believe, and often couldn’t find it, even when he was prepared to look.

Ultimately, it was his one time Kiwi rival Sonny Bill Williams, who became the catalyst for deep seated change in Cooper’s demeanour and outlook in life.

Despite several reputational smudge marks of his own early in his decorated dual-rugby code career, SBW was now steel. And as the physics majors would know, you need steel to sharpen steel.

In 2018, at a time when Cooper was at an all time low – having been cut by Reds in late 2017 – Williams took him under his wing.

For two months, Cooper lived with the retired All Black, his wife Raffle and their young children in Auckland. They trained together, but more than that, Cooper watched and listened and learned.

He saw how Williams conducted himself, how he approached and treated people. How sport was a big part of his life, but not the only part. It didn’t define him. Through this, Cooper developed new perspective, as well has as sense of gratitude.

For the past couple of seasons, he’s been playing up in Japan, for Kintetsu, under former Reds coach Nick Stiles. Stiles admits he has never seen the gifted playmaker in better shape,, physically, mentally, emotionally. or socially.

When Scott Johnson, Rugby Australia’s director of rugby called, enquiring about what sort of influence Cooper had been at Kintetsu, Stiles had no hesitation providing a ringing endorsement.

And now, here he is, back in the mix, back in the gold jersey, steering the Wallabies around the park.

Quade Mk I certainly had his legion of loyal supporters. Older calmer, more measured Quade Mk II might even have more.

Among those fans, Quade Cooper himself.

And he now knows the same rules apply to everybody. Even the special people.

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