How Cooper went from Zero to hero
Coach Dave Rennie says “of course” a 35-year-old Quade Cooper could lead the Wallabies into the next World Cup, after the maligned playmaker took down world champions South Africa in his first Test for more than four years.
That scenario would have seemed bizarre even after the 33-year-old was drafted into the squad during his Japanese off-season, primarily as a mentor to budding No.10 Noah Lolesio, earlier this year.
But it doesn’t anymore after his fairytale return on the Gold Coast on Sunday which saw a calm Cooper slot a perfect eight off the tee, including the match-winner after the siren from 40 metres out and 12 metres in from touch.
Cooper is now in the box seat to keep Lolesio on the pine and also delay what appeared the inevitable Rugby Championship return of James O’Connor (groin), who at 31 could become the junior playmaker of the side.
“We didn’t think it was a risk,” Rennie said of picking Cooper, who hadn’t played a professional game in five months.
“Based on form [in training], it was hard to leave him out.
“He’d be a young fella [at the 2023 World Cup] if he was in the Springbok team.
“Of course he could [be Wallabies No.10 at the World Cup], but we’re not thinking too far ahead at this stage.
“He was excited to get an opportunity and delivered big time and I know he’s keen and available for the rest of the year.”
Less was more for Cooper in his 71st Test, resisting the urge to throw long cut-out passes and instead servicing his outside men with sharp, clean ball or kicking for territory.
His pass to Samu Kerevi set up Andrew Kellaway for Australia’s only try while the Springboks, fresh off a 2-1 series win over the British & Irish Lions and two straight wins over Argentina, scored three rolling maul tries.
But the Wallabies showed they have the low gears necessary to beat the visitors, who were at full strength aside from injured winger Cheslin Kolbe, at their own game.
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“They can mix it up; if they want to play expansively they can, if they want to play a conservative game they can,” South African coach Jacques Nienaber said.
Cooper was cast aside by former Wallabies coach Robbie Deans and incoming Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn before moving to the Melbourne Rebels and then to Japan, where he remains contracted to second-tier outfit Kintetsu Liners.
Still waiting to hear if he’s been granted Australian citizenship after four failed attempts – “fingers crossed” he said post-game – New Zealand-born Cooper admitted he had made an effort to become a better man after spending his youth as simply “Quade Cooper, the Wallaby”.
An ironic by-product of that has been his Wallabies second-coming.
And now, with fellow returning Japan-based stars Kerevi and Sean McMahon, who will join camp next week, he has given captain Michael Hooper another wise head to turn to.
“He was calm, made good decisions, gave us a bit of direction … it’s a great story for him, hey,” Hooper said.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for Cooper after being dropped by Michael Cheika in 2017 and let go by the Reds.
He resorted to playing club rugby in Brisbane before a stint with the Melbourne Rebels in 2019, but missed out of selection for the World Cup that year.
He credited two-time World Cup-winning All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams as helping him through the tough times.
“When things went a bit pear-shaped a few years ago, he was the first guy to reach out to me and I spent about two-three months with him, just living with him every day and seeing what it takes to be a good, strong man every day,” he said.
“You see him with his family, with his teammates, the dedication, the hard work he puts into his day-to-day life, not just when he turns up to footy training, about being a better man, about being better for himself.”
* Additional reporting by AFP