Finding that point of difference
July 3, 2013
In full flight © Getty Images
There are rare moments in sport when in the stands any sense of partiality goes out of the window. Something unique happens on the field which makes the crowd sit up and applaud regardless of team or nation. They are caught in the moment, it is an involuntary occurrence.
It was about 55 minutes into the Reds' game against the Cheetahs in 2011 when an example of this occurred. Quade Cooper took the ball inside his in-goal area, after a Cheetahs' knock on, and instead of looking for touch or perhaps running it from deep, he looked up and saw Digby Ioane free on the other flank. An immaculate cross-kick found Ioane's hands and off the winger sped.
"No one knows what Quade Cooper thinks. What brazen confidence and arrogance to do that behind your own tryline," the commentator said. Cooper never takes the easy option.
At just past 10pm on Saturday evening, Melbourne was basking in the glory of the Wallabies' second Test win over the British & Irish Lions. 545 miles away in Sydney, Cooper was sat in Sonny Bill Williams' house watching the match. While quick to add his support for the team, Cooper admitted seeing his friends and colleagues run out in Australia's biggest match since the 2003 World Cup final was akin to "watching your girlfriend go off on a date with someone else".
The Reds fly-half divides opinion the world over. His half a million Twitter followers either praise him, or chastise him. Going on the inches of newspaper column Cooper has taken up over the past two years, it is difficult to remember he is just 25.
Growing up, Cooper wanted to be Superman. "Then I figured I couldn't fly, I didn't have superhuman strength and couldn't shoot lasers out of my eyes, so I gave up on that quickly," Cooper told ESPN. "When I was able to pick up a rugby ball and started recognising the rugby superstars, my first childhood heroes were Christian Cullen, Carlos Spencer and Jonah Lomu.
"I looked at all three of them and thought who would I be most like and it wasn't going to be Jonah and Christian had lightning speed. So it was Carlos Spencer, I used to have a big poster of him on my wall. I loved the way he played it, every time he ran out it looked like he was having a good time."
While he now has 38 caps for the Wallabies, Cooper could have worn the black of New Zealand had fate dealt him a different hand. Despite being born in Tokoroa, he moved to Australia when he was 13. His decision to pull on the green and gold of the Wallabies was one of the major subplots of the 2011 World Cup. Any time the ball came near him, he was greeted with a cacophony of boos despite his grandmother's assertion: "He is not a whakahihi boy".
It was unbecoming of a rugby crowd, let alone one with as proud a heritage as the All Blacks. It got to Cooper. But it is something he has since channelled.
The man of steel © Quade Cooper
"Whenever I look back at it now, there was an opportunity for a young kid to learn a lot from that, I've come a long way. For the future, it was beneficial for me. Being amongst the hype, the pressure and how the fans of both sides of the fence reacted to the way we were and to me personally as a player."
Injury ended the bronze medal playoff prematurely for Cooper, for him the layoff was a "blessing in disguise". "After all I had been through mentally, it was my body telling me I needed a break."
But even greater scrutiny was to come. In the aftermath of Australia's 23-19 win over Argentina in the Rugby Championship, Robbie Deans admitted he was close to dragging the fly-half from the field after he was charged down for Tomas Leonardi's try. There was no recognition for his part in Pat McCabe's score.
It was the straw that broke the camel's back. Cooper took aim at the Australian Rugby Union. He labelled the environment in the camp "toxic". A record fine followed and he is yet to play for Deans or the Wallabies again.
"I am passionate about the game and about winning. Ever since I was a young kid, I hate losing. When I said those things, I never regret things. I feel it has helped me improve as a player and a team member. I don't regret it, but you learn from those sorts of things and how you approach things and get your point across. It is what it is and I have learnt a lot from it. I just want to be the best I can and improve as a player for the team I'm a member of."
But while the Wallabies used the stick rather than the carrot to defuse the situation, the Reds took him further under their wing. It became apparent from my visit to his old school Churchie in Brisbane, he prospers when an arm is put round him. The Reds have understood this with Ewen McKenzie at the forefront of this approach.
And although the Wallabies are not on the radar at the moment he is still enjoying running out for the Reds, though questions about his Test future are still asked at every opportunity. "It's part and parcel when you're not involved so I don't have much to say about it."
But while his Australia ambitions are at a standstill, what became apparent when talking to Cooper is his inbuilt drive to succeed in everything he does. He has been strongly linked with rugby league and while he admitted he did get "itchy feet" watching the State of Origin the other night, a cross-code switch is not on his immediate agenda.
He may play the odd informal game of the 13-man format of the game alongside "older brother" Sonny Bill, but it is behind closed doors. When he took to the boxing ring against Barry Dunnett, it was very much in the public eye.
Standing triumphant after a win in the ring © Getty Images
"I love boxing. I've been training nearly every day for the past few weeks. I've been sparring most days. When someone picks up a tennis racket they say 'I love the sport' and they are drawn to it, that's what boxing was like for me. When I put the gloves on, it was immediate. When you put the gloves on you want more and more."
Striving to be the best, it is his credo. Despite all the media attention, criticism and attempted amateur psychology, Cooper still loves union. He spoke of his passion for the 15-man format of the game on a frequent basis throughout our talk.
"I love the game, I play the game because I love it and it's a bonus we get paid. If you think back to the days when you played rugby in the backyard, you did it because you love it; the chip kicks and the passes. And just because you play in front of 52,000 people, that shouldn't change it. I train to do those things and I try and add something to the game. Everyone has to try and find their point of difference these days."
One thing Cooper has achieved, without doubt in his career, both on and off the field is find a "point of difference". The Wallabies may yet go on and win the series against the Lions and only he will know what he feels if James Horwill ends up clasping the Tom Richards Cup on Saturday night in Sydney.
It will be something he reflects on in later life when his rugby career comes to an end. And it is that thought of what people will think of his time in the sport which forever plays on his mind.
"I always ask myself this question, over and over. Whenever I'm sitting in the lounge, driving my car, this question pops into my head. There's lots of things I'd like to achieve but for me the thing people don't necessarily see is how hard I work for the game and how hard I try and be the best player I can be.
"Whether people say that at the end of my career? Who knows. But I will continue working and try and be the best player. I'm in this game to win, it's the same drive I had a kid. If you're afraid to fail, then you put yourself in the position where you can't be the best. I'm going to continue to work hard and that's my goal."
© Getty Images
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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