It is pitch black as Quade Cooper pulls over to log on to the Zoom call. He has taken the week out and is cruising down Australia’s Gold Coast, visiting a few old friends along the way.
In typical Quade Cooper fashion, he has not over planned. The No10 is going day-by-day through various Airbnbs, using the time to reflect on one of rugby’s great comebacks.
‘You wake up early, get down the beach, play a bit of golf,’ he says. ‘It’s a laugh, up and down the Goldy and it’s good to get out of that bubble for a little bit. I’m not too sure where we’ll be tomorrow. I like finding an Airbnb.
‘I booked into one place under the name “Q” and the guy comes down to give me the keys and he’s like “Oh, gee, it’s you!” We ended up having a yarn about footy for half an hour!’
Quade Cooper spent two years in Japan away from the spotlight before returning to Australia
Over the past few weeks, Cooper’s face has been everywhere in Australia. He has spent two years in Japan away from the spotlight — and seemingly out of the international rugby picture altogether — but has made his comeback in extraordinary fashion. Four games, four victories. And he could be lining up against England at Twickenham next month.
‘It’s funny how it all happened,’ he says. ‘Playing for the Wallabies felt like a distant memory. I had been out of the team for years. It was far away. The longer I spent in Japan, the further and further it got away. Even nine weeks ago, it was still out of reach.’
He adds: ‘I was basically on holiday here in Australia for my off-season. I was two and a half months into my summer break when I had some conversations with Dave Rennie. I came into the squad a week later and from there I was fortunate to play against South Africa. The rest was a little bit of history.
‘To be able to sit here right now and look back on that journey, I can appreciate it. I learnt to develop my skillset even when there’s no guaranteed outcome. Finding the love to better yourself, so you’re ready for whatever opportunity might come your way. That applies to rugby or any other walk of life. To be able to start my Wallabies tally again at 70 caps and now be on 74, I feel very fortunate.’
Cooper has enjoyed an extraordinary comeback with four victories in four games
Cooper played like he had never been away. In his first Wallabies start since 2016, he kicked the winning penalty in the final play against the Springboks to announce his return to the big time. The best kicking display since Matt Burke in 1999? That’s how the locals described it, but while the home crowd slipped into a state of victorious delirium, Cooper barely flinched a muscle.
‘People ask me about that kick. Whether I kicked it or not, I wasn’t going to let it define me,’ he says. ‘You can’t get tied up in things like that. Either way, I was still going to wake up on the Sunday and start again. There’s another game next week and you’re not going to win every time you step on the paddock.
‘As a 20-year-old, how would I have celebrated that kick? Mate, I can’t even put that on record. I’d be out celebrating, overwhelmed by the emotion. That’s where I’d fall off the tree. You’d achieve something that means the world to you but when you’ve got that, what else is there? It’s hard to pick yourself back up.
‘On the flip side, if you don’t get your desired outcome then you’re a failure. You hit rock bottom. I was outcome-based because I wanted to win so bad — and I put so much pressure on myself. I defined myself through rugby. That’s all I was and, without it, who was I?
‘Win a game and I was the man. Lose a game and I’d hide away and not let anyone see me. When the holidays came around, you’d be lost because your whole identity has gone. You learn to understand that while rugby is a big part of your life and being a footballer requires a diligent lifestyle, it’s not your whole life. That’s what I remind myself every day: don’t let your emotions get so high or so low.
The fly-half kicked the winning penalty in the final play against the Springboks last month
‘Every day is a reset. You step back and look at the things around you. If it’s not working, you ask why? I know I’ve made mistakes but I’m better for those experiences. You have to be honest, open and vulnerable with yourself first. That allowed me to grab my life and move forward.’
In days gone by, Cooper has struggled to find his place in international rugby. But he believes attitudes are starting to change. ‘Rugby’s a conservative game at heart. When it’s played the right way, or at least the way I believe it should be played, then it’s the best game in the book. You see a team like the All Blacks and every team chases them.
‘Teams that play that brand of footy are more appealing to me, but I still have so much respect for your South Africas, Wales and Englands of the world who play a game that not many other teams can play. They’re conservative but they’re very good at what they do.
‘Professional sport is all about entertainment so what does that entertainment value look like? To me, I want to see running rugby. There are things that could be tweaked: you could move the defensive line back five metres because the ruck is such an uncertain place. Then again, the next guy might be happy with a three-all draw. You can never please everyone.’
There is room for optimism. Cooper believes the current crop of No10s are in a strong position to evolve the sport as a spectacle.
The mercurial playmaker could be lining up against England at Twickenham next month
‘If you look at No10s around the world now, you’ve got Finn Russell, Marcus Smith, Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga. Electric, entertaining players who have a skillset other than just standing in the pocket and kicking the ball. It’s only over the last five or so years that those guys are getting respect and their faces are starting to fit.
‘Maybe before you would be written off as a maverick who is unreliable. The more those guys are empowered and the more they continue to grow, the more kids will come through and want to play like them. The media and current players need to get behind these players and support them, rather than smash them and bury them if they have one bad game. Hopefully I will play against Marcus Smith one day but either way I’ll continue to love the work he does.’
That duel could come around as soon as November 13, when England host Australia. Cooper is yet to agree with his Japanese employers, Kintetsu, if he will feature on the tour. ‘Once those conversations have been had with my club then the powers that be will be able to comment on those internationals. I’m sure those conversations will happen in due course and the same goes for the Barbarians.’
There is one final burning question: is the 2023 World Cup next on the agenda for the 33-year-old?
‘Mate, to be honest, I don’t really set targets. I have no illusions around the fact I’m 33 but I look after myself and have utmost respect for my body. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being back in the Wallabies. It’s just about building habits that will allow me to be in a great space if that opportunity arises. Everyone’s journey is a little bit different.’