AFTER 11 months in exile, Quade Cooper has returned to the Wallabies fold and is ready to put the pain of missing the British and Irish Lions series behind him and prove he is a more mature player with a much-improved work ethic, writes Nick Mulvenney.
The stand-off missed the Lions series after being excluded from the Australia team by previous coach Robbie Deans in the wake of comments he made last year, describing the environment around the Wallabies as “toxic”.
Deans departed after the Wallabies lost the series 2-1 last month to be replaced by Cooper’s former provincial coach, and chief cheerleader, Ewen McKenzie and the 25-year-old was clearly delighted to be back.
“When you have time away from the game, whenever you’re selected for that team again the hunger is always there,” Cooper said, after being picked for the opening games of the Rugby Championship, the four-nation Southern Hemisphere tournament which begins on Saturday with Australia hosting New Zealand and Argentina travelling to South Africa.
“It’s a great feeling, just the little things like getting on the bus and going to training, the sort of things I’ve haven’t done for close to a year,” he added. “It’s really refreshing, new players, new coaching staff, anybody can see that it’s going to be different.”
Cooper last played for Australia against Argentina last September before a knee injury and then his clash with Deans kept him out of the green and gold Australia shirt. The New Zealand-born playmaker, one of the most naturally gifted in the game, said he had learned a lot in his time away.
“In the past I’ve relied heavily on talent,” he said. “Talent will get you so far but when you get to this level you have to make sure your work ethic and your attitude and all those small things you think may not matter too much, that they’re all in the right spot. I learned a lot from my time out, also from being injured and then again from not being part of the team. Growing up, having time away, I’m 25 now and I’m not getting any younger and I’ve got to make the most of it.”
Even with McKenzie in charge, Cooper said he was not taking his position as a starter for granted and was looking forward to working with the challengers for the No.10 shirt, Matt Toomua and Bernard Foley. “The best way to improve yourself is to have guys competing,” he said.
Cooper, who won a cruiserweight bout in February, said he would be putting his boxing career on hold at least until the end of the season so it did not conflict with “doing a good job for the Wallabies”.
While missing out on the Lions tour had been “pretty painful”, he added, what had hurt more was that the Wallabies had lost the series.
“You just want to be a part of it,” he said. “I was just disappointed we didn’t get the win. Hopefully we can rectify that by moving forward this year. There’s a lot to win this year.”
First up are back-to-back Tests against the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, matches that have particular resonance for Cooper after he was branded “public enemy No.1” in the land of his birth at the 2011 World Cup.
Cooper understands that such controversies are all part of marketing the game and does not expect the boos that accompany his every move in New Zealand to end any time soon. “We can’t do anything about it, we can’t tell them to be quiet, they’d probably just shout louder, so you just get on with what you can control,” he said.
“You need to practise with it at the back of your mind, knowing that the crowd’s going to get into you, and embrace it. Not so much go out and enjoy it but train it so it doesn’t catch you off guard.”
A week before that particular challenge in Wellington on August 24, though, Cooper and his team-mates have a chance to give McKenzie the best possible start to his reign against the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday. “We want to be the best team in the world and the only way you do that is by beating the best,” he said. “Our full focus is going to be on that, putting in a great performance, try to build throughout the championship and put trophies in the cabinet.”