The making of Quade Cooper
Tom Hamilton in Brisbane
June 8, 2013
The young Quade Cooper celebrates a win at schoolboy level © ESPNscrum
Just under seven kilometres away from the Suncorp Stadium, lies the Anglican Church Grammar School, known locally as Churchie. For Quade Cooper, both of the places are comfort zones. The incredibly talented playmaker may only face the British & Irish Lions once in his career if Robbie Deans continues to put personal preference over ability, and if he does, then he will ignore a rare, unique talent.
Cooper has his flaws, he was reckless when he hit out at the Wallabies back in September and in terms of game management, he sometimes picks the wrong option. However, his talent can never be brought into question.
While he lights up the Suncorp Stadium these days, his rugby career started making headlines when he was at Churchie. He spent just two years at the prestigious Brisbane school but this is a proven ground for Wallabies - over the years they have churned out 16 Test players. Two stand above the rest, Cooper and David Pocock.
The two could not have been more different at school. Pocock was the model student ticking all of the boxes, and played at inside centre alongside Cooper, while also turning his hand to water polo among other sports.
Cooper excelled at rugby and that was it. The school were happy to let him hone his unique talent. Coached by Tom Barker, now in charge of rugby at rival school Brisbane Boys' College, Cooper's ability was the talk of the town, according to his old maths teacher and current senior head Rod Olsen.
"Quade in Year 11 was the stand out rugby player in the whole of the Brisbane competition," Olsen said. "He made Australian schoolboys that year, Kurtley Beale made the same year from New South Wales. At that point they were vying for the same No.10 jersey.
"When Quade was in Year 11, he was put in at No.15 for the Australian School Boys' team and Kurtley Beale was at No.10. And then they played together the following year, Quade didn't have the same outstanding year but he was still top class. In Year 12, one of our other high schools, Brisbane High, had Matt Toomua at No.10, the Brumbies fly-half. And they competed against each other. So all the No.10s they are talking about now, were all from the same teams."
But while Cooper was excelling on Churchie's paddock - having witnessed this first hand, I can assure you they have impressive facilities - he struggled in the classroom, as Olsen remembers. "He was in my maths class for two years, 11 and 12. He was a D student for most of the time because he didn't really try.
"Rugby was his career. But then about halfway through Year 12 he said 'Sir I want to pass maths, what do I need to do?'. And then he worked really hard, he saw me after school and got additional homework. And he got through. Maths was always a difficult subject for him and it probably still is now. He can probably add up a few dollars and a few things but he went out and did it, and passed. It was at that point I thought, Quade can make it because if he puts his mind to it, he can do it."
The first XV photo from 2005, Quade Cooper is in the top row, second from the right and David Pocock is in the front row in the middle © Churchie
Cooper eventually got through and obtained his senior certificate, though Olsen concedes he was not "an overly focused student for most of the time". By the time he had finished school, he had been picked up by the Reds, then under the guidance of ex-Wallabies coach Eddie Jones.
Former Wallaby Dave Nucifora's brother Gary was the team manager at the Reds at that time and is now director of rugby at Churchies whose motto is 'making of men'. He remembers the young, talented Cooper.
"He went straight into the Reds straight from school. His was an ultra fast-track. It is becoming more common but if you asked him would he do it again that way, he would say 'probably not. It was probably not a good time. They were difficult years and as a young player coming through, it is much better to be coming into a more mature, settled environment.
"It was more about making sure we secured him from rugby league - better that he came to us rather than go somewhere else and it can be a strategy that is a bit fraught with challenges if you do that.
"So he struggled for the first couple of years trying to lead a Super 12 team around the field and a struggling one at that. There was a lot of instability in the player ranks, we lost a lot of players to the Force.
"It was difficult but that is why it is so pleasing to see how well he has gone. He is an enigmatic character and you are either a coach that feels comfortable having that type of player who can give you edge or you are uncomfortable with it."
Nucifora paused, and added: "I think Robbie Deans has got a few challenges at the moment getting his head around whether he can risk him. I think he is worth the risk."
But Wallabies call-up or not, Cooper will still keep a close connection from the school in what was a mutually beneficial understanding. "He has always been very proud of his school. Whenever he comes back he still calls me Mr Olsen. We have had him at our rugby dinners where we congratulate members of all our teams and he talks to all the boys."
Nucifora, who helped bring through Western Force's Solomoni Rasolea and Reds' Aidan Toua in recent seasons, is now searching for those rare elusive talents, the Coopers and Pococks of this world. Both the Reds and Churchie knew they had to handle Cooper and Pocock differently. And their approach of putting an arm around the young Cooper's shoulder and nurturing him paid dividends.
"I have rung him on a number of occasions and he really does appreciate the opportunity he was given here," Nucifora concludes. "For all of his critics, and for some of the decisions he probably wished he hadn't made, he is a really genuinely proud old boy of the school."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.