When the Wallabies sang the Australian national anthem before Sunday night’s Test match against South Africa on the Gold Coast, it was obvious that one player was less animated than the rest.
In fact, Quade Cooper’s lips hardly moved.
And who could blame him?
Four times the New Zealand-born playmaker – a veteran of 71 Tests and two Rugby World Cups with the Wallabies – had applied to the Federal Government for Australian citizenship, and four times he had been turned down.
The reason? Because, according to the paper-pushers in Canberra, he has spent too much time overseas and provided ‘no evidence that he had engaged in activities of benefit to Australia’.
Wallabies star Quade Cooper is finally set to be granted citizenship – after 71 Tests for Australia
The one time golden boy of the sport (pictured with ex girlfriend Laura Dundovic) was public enemy number one in New Zealand after clashing with All Blacks legend Richie McCaw
To which Cooper, could quite rightly have asked, ‘What more do I have to do?’
Well, now he knows.
Win a Test against the world champions with a 45-metre penalty kick after fulltime.
Of course there is more to it than that.
With US-born Labor senator Kristina Keneally – who was granted Australian citizenship in 2000 – in his corner, a groundswell of support for Cooper’s plight has been building for months.
And why wouldn’t it?
When one considers how easy it appears for some newcomers to become dinky-di Aussies, it seems ludicrous that Cooper’s credentials could be rejected.
He has lived in Australia since the age of 13, represented Australian Schoolboys and under-20s, worn the Wallaby jersey since 2008, owns a luxury waterfront home in Brisbane and has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax since signing his first professional contract with the Queensland Reds while still at school.
Written down like that, it seems like an easy ride for the prodigiously talented footballer, but in fact it has been anything but.
Born in Tokoroa, 30km southwest of Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island, Cooper was a star from the day he first played barefoot as a four-year-old but his mother Ruhia, knew he would have to leave town if he was to make the most of his skills.
‘My mum had a very tough home life,’ he told me in a 2017 interview. ‘Her father, my grandfather, used to beat my nanna and beat the kids, so it was pretty difficult. She was 16 when she had my sister and 18 when she had me.
‘My father left us when I was six-months old, so she wanted me to have every opportunity I could get.’
At Ruhia’s urging he left his tight-knit family and moved to Brisbane aged 13 to live with relatives as he pursued the dream of becoming a professional rugby player.
He was quickly spotted by local officials who fast-tracked him into junior rep teams but within a year, homesick and missing his mother, stepfather David, two sisters and two half-brothers, he was back in Tokoroa saying he wasn’t going back.
On Sunday, Cooper, 33, kicked a penalty goal after fulltime that saw the Wallabies beat the Springboks on the Gold Coast
Cooper has dated a number of high profile women, including model Laura Dundovic (pictured) and Olympic swimming champion Stephanie Rice
After moving to Australia from New Zealand, it didn’t take long for Quade Cooper (pictured, second from right) to attract the attention of junior rugby talent scouts
Ruhia, who worked nights at the local KFC, made another big decision. The entire family moved to Brisbane to give Quade every chance to make it. The Queensland Rugby Union arranged a scholarship to a top private school and at the age of 18, he made his debut for the Reds and, two years later, the Wallabies.
It should have been plain sailing, but it wasn’t. Rugby Australia’s wonder boy soon became their biggest headache.
In 2009, the year after making his Test debut at the age of 20 – and being fined ‘several thousand dollars’ by the Australian Rugby Union for engaging in a food fight at a team hotel – he was arrested and charged with burglary involving the alleged theft of two laptop computers.
Six months later, he was fined $400 and banned from driving for six months for driving on a suspended licence. While police did not proceed with the burglary charges following mediation between Cooper’s lawyers and the complainants, the ARU fined him $7500 for ‘attracting negative publicity for the game’ and not informing them about the licence suspension.
Along with teammates James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, Cooper made up a trio of precociously talented but scandal-prone young Wallabies dubbed ‘The Three Amigos’ by the media. As their list of off-field indiscretions grew, it seemed they were in a race to see who could have their ARU contract torn up first.
In September 2012, Cooper appeared to be winning. After describing the Wallabies as a ‘toxic environment … destroying me as a player and a person’, he copped a $40,000 fine and three-match suspension. It seemed only a matter of time before a parting of the ways.
So what happened? How did the one-time bad boy of Australian rugby morph into the calm, composed match-winner who in the post-game TV interview on Sunday night sounded more like a Zen philosopher than the wild child who at one stage had a longer rap sheet than Ned Kelly?
Cooper’s previous requests for citizenship were denied on the basis he provided ‘no evidence that he had engaged in activities of benefit to Australia.’
Cooper is playing club rugby in Japan with the Kintetsu Liners – which has been a key factor in his citizenship requests being denied by the Home Affairs department
‘I was doing some things back then that I’m embarrassed about now,’ he told me in that interview. ‘One day I just thought about the example I was giving to my little brothers and I knew I had to change. My brothers, and my baby nephew, will grow up and see the things that I did and they’ll think, if he did that, then I can do that. I want to them to see the good things, not those other things.’
Things, he says, that were brought on by a combination of youth, inexperience and money. Lots of it.
The kid from Tokoroa was living the high life. He was a social media superstar, his accounts littered with photos of him with glamorous girlfriends like models Ellie McLeod and Laura Dundovic and Olympic champion Stephanie Rice.
‘Of course I’m disappointed by some of my actions as a young kid but at the same time, if I see some young guy doing something like that now, I think, if they learn from it, so what?
‘There’s a lot of people who can easily point the finger at an 18-year-old like I was then, but none of them has ever been in that position. My parents couldn’t give me advice because they’d never had that experience. You ask my mum if she’s ever seen $100,000 in a bank account. What do you do with that money when you’re 18 or 20 years old?
‘My mum’s never seen that sort of money to this day, so you’ve got a kid who’s earning money, and people know who you are, people want to hang out with you, they want a piece of you. People who hate you as well, people who are jealous of you … you’ve got attention from a lot of people.
‘It’s a very hard one for a young kid.’
After making his name as a schoolboy star in Queensland, Cooper has played 71 Tests for the Wallabies in a decorated career (pictured in 2007)
What wasn’t hard for Cooper at that time was performing on the football field. His 2011 season, in which he spearheaded the Reds to the Super Rugby title, was arguably the best-ever by an Australian player.
He tried things on the field that season that seemingly defied gravity, physics and common sense – and more often than not they came off. He headed back to New Zealand with the Wallabies for the Rugby World Cup determined to establish himself as the best player in the game.
And that’s where it all came undone.
In two Tests against the All Blacks that season Cooper clashed with New Zealand captain and national hero Richie McCaw. On the second occasion All Black enforcer Brad Thorn stepped in to come to his captain’s aid.
To Cooper it was just part of the game. To rugby-crazed New Zealanders it was a declaration of war. When Cooper arrived for the World Cup, the natives were waiting.
The former Tokoroa boy was now officially the country’s Public Enemy Number One.
A newspaper claimed to have taken a poll that rated him ahead of the French perpetrators of the Rainbow Warrior bombing.
The psychological battering Cooper received for the seven weeks of the tournament was unprecedented. Every Kiwi, from then-prime minister John Key down, wanted to join the anti-Cooper movement.
He was booed from kick-off to full-time every match he played. Off the field it was just as unrelenting. There were radio phone-ins, T-shirts and an ‘I Hate Quade Cooper’ Facebook page that attracted thousands of comments. A TV panel show debated the question, ‘What is a Boofhead, and is Quade Cooper one?’
Throughout the tournament Cooper told reporters that the constant booing and abuse was not getting to him but that was obviously not the case. He appeared nervous and hesitant.
When the Wallabies faced the All Blacks in the semi-final at Auckland’s Eden Park, he put the kick-off out on the full before the Wallabies were eliminated and the Kiwis marched on to the final.
The Wallabies star was a regular in the social pages when he began dating swimmer Stephanie Rice (pictured, the couple together in 2011)
Cooper would never be the same player again. He made the team for the 2015 World Cup in the UK but didn’t even make the reserves bench for the final against the All Blacks at Twickenham.
After the tournament he joined glamour French club Toulon as replacement for their retiring English star Jonny Wilkinson but it proved a massive disappointment, as did a return to the Reds.
Once again his clash with Richie McCaw and Brad Thorn came back to bite him. When the Reds appointed Thorn coach in 2018, Cooper was told his services were no longer required and he should seek employment elsewhere. He refused, and for the entire season played Brisbane club rugby alongside amateur team-mates while being paid over $600,000 by Rugby Australia and the Reds.
After a season with the Melbourne Rebels and missing selection for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, he headed to Japan for what many saw as a well-paid but insignificant swansong.
And then came a phone call from Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. Rennie, another Kiwi trying to make a mark in Australian rugby, was bringing a number of youngsters into the side and thought that Cooper might be able to mentor talented but inexperienced five-eighth Noah Lolesio.
He was added to the squad purely as a training partner for Lolesio but impressed Rennie so much with his fitness, work-ethic and skills that he was a shock inclusion for the Test against the Springboks – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cooper is also good mates with code hopping star Sonny Bill Williams (pictured), who was in the crowd on Sunday watching the Wallabies beat South Africa
In 2018, Cooper was told by Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn his services weren’t required – so the fly-half played club rugby instead, and was still paid a salary of $600,000
In the aftermath of that heart-stopping extra-time goal that skyrocketed Cooper back into the spotlight, it appeared he was the only one not getting carried away.
‘Footy is just a small part of my life,’ he said calmly in his post-match interview. It’s an important part, but it’s still a small part. I look forward to spending time with my family and working on my body and my mind and continuing to get better every day.’
Was this really the same person who, at the age of 18, sledged 57-Test All Black Byron Kelleher during a Super Rugby match that the Reds were losing by 20-points?
Indeed it was, and in that same post-game interview he gave away another part of the secret to his amazing transformation – the influence of former rugby league and All Black superstar Sonny-Bill Williams.
‘I’m so grateful for him,’ he said. ‘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 living with him every day and just seeing what it takes to be a good strong man every day.
‘You see him with his family, with his team-mates. The dedication, the hard work he puts into his day-to-day life. Not just when he turns up to footy training. Every single day about being a better man.’
It is an example that Cooper has taken to heart. It has seen him climb back to the top of world rugby and, by all reports, should see him the proud holder of an Australian passport when he plays his next Test for the Wallabies.
Look out for him before the game. He’ll be the one singing Advance Australia Fair the loudest.