New Zealand rugby fans just couldn’t help themselves. With their sporting heroes locked in a tense battle with their arch-rival in Dunedin last August, thousands attempted to sour the Test by making it all about one man for all the wrong reasons.
That man is Quade Cooper – and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The New Zealand-born Wallabies flyhalf has long been the player that many in Aotearoa love to hate.
It all started as Cooper locked horns with Richie McCaw on more than one occasion, but the ‘hate’ for the Wallaby has developed into something else entirely. Even All Blacks fans probably don’t realise what their fury is built on.
Respect. Admiration. Envy. All three words fit the bill. Say what you want about Quade and continue to tell yourself it’s reality, but the truth is that fans don’t boo players they don’t fear.
Philadelphia 76rs guard Patrick Beverley summed it up best from an athlete’s point of view late last year, saying: “Everywhere I go I get booed.
“I think that’s a sign of respect. It actually helps me get going… they wanted to give me some boos, but that’s part of my career. I’m used to it.”
It’s “a sign of respect” when athletes get booed, and while it hasn’t always been easy for him to deal with – more on that soon – it’s something that adds to Cooper’s status and lore as a Wallabies great up there with the likes of Michael Lynagh and Stephen Larkham.
The Auckland-born talent moved across the Tasman in the early 2000s before embarking on a glistening high school career with Anglican Church Grammar School in Brisbane.
Cooper emerged as a generational talent, and that rugby prophecy was fulfilled in 2007 when the then-18-year-old debuted for the Queensland Reds.
But Cooper’s potential as a long-term option for the national team took a forward step the following year as the teenager entered the cauldron that is Test rugby for the first time. Cooper came off the pine and ended up scoring a try inside the final 10 minutes against Italy.
The following year, Cooper started in the prized No. 10 jersey as the Wallabies ended a 47-year drought over the Springboks in Bloemfontein – but more on Quade’s dominance over the Boks in a bit.
As a trailblazer for what it means to be uniquely talented on the rugby field, a side-stepping and flick-passing Cooper led the Reds to a Super Rugby title in 2011. More silverware was on the way, too, with the Wallabies winning the Tri Nations with a win over the All Blacks.
Cooper went on to start every Test for the Wallabies at the sport’s showpiece event in New Zealand, with Australia going on to claim a bronze medal at Eden Park.
Whilst the Wallabies playmaker continued to chip away and impress at Test level, playing in New Zealand was always tough – the boos, which got old quickly, clearly got to him.
But in 2013, the Wallabies ventured to Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium – the very same venue as last year’s Bledisloe Cup Test – and while they fell short of victory, they made history.
Cooper nailed all six shots at goal, knocked over a drop goal, made three try-saving tackles and two line-breaks. Add a try-assist for Adam Ashley-Cooper Cooper to that, too. With Cooper scoring 18 points, that Australian team became the first side to reach the 33-point marker against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
That deserves some praise.
The Wallabies went on to win four of five Tests during their tour to the northern hemisphere that year, with a close defeat to England at Twickenham the only blip in their Grand Slam pursuit. Cooper started all of these Tests.
Cooper helped the Wallabies reach the Rugby World Cup final two years later but entered the international rugby wilderness shortly after.
If former coach Ewan McKenzie was still at the helm for the 2015 World Cup and beyond, the Gitau law may never have been introduced and Cooper would’ve been the main man.
Years passed by and Cooper’s international appeared to be over. But Dave Rennie had another idea.
With Rennie stepping into the Wallabies’ hot seat in 2020, the new coach soon handed Cooper a Test revival in 2021. Back in Wallaby gold for the first time in more than 1540 days, he had a blinder against the Springboks.
Cooper scored 23 of 28 points on the Gold Coast and 100 per cent shot accuracy from eight attempts off the kicking tee – including a long-range penalty at the death which saw the Wallabies edge the defending world champions.
With Rennie coaching the side and Cooper in the No. 10 jersey, the Wallabies were actually tracking upwards two years out from the 2023 World Cup.
Australia beat the world champion Boks twice, and another two wins over Argentina followed with Cooper at flyhalf. The Wallabies hadn’t looked that good in a while and Cooper was the reason why.
Those wins extended Cooper’s impressive success over the now-four-time world champions. Coming up against some of the most menacing players in Test rugby history, the Wallaby has won 11 of 17 matches against South Africa – a win rate of 65%.
But with that in the past, a significant injury risked derailing everything the following year. With Cooper still leading the way for Australia, he ruptured his Achilles against Argentina in Mendoza.
Cooper was left to watch the Wallabies almost fall to their worst year on record. Then, new coach Eddie Jones came in and changed everything once again.
As was the case for most of his career, coaching instability prevented Cooper from achieving even greater heights in Wallaby gold.
Jones, who handed Cooper his debut at the Queensland Reds two decades earlier, was obsessed with ushering in the next generation which led to some questionable selections.
After playing in all four Tests up until that point, Cooper was famously left out of Jones’ World Cup squad – a decision that has since been heavily criticised.
An 80 Test career, which was almost unanimously expected to continue as a key figure in France, suddenly came to a stop.
While it’s true that Cooper only won two of 14 Tests against the All Blacks – who were in the midst of their most dominant era ever, losing just 3 Tests between 2011 and 2015 – there’s no denying Cooper’s greatness.
Up there on the Mount Rushmore of Australian first-fives with Michael Lynagh, Stephen Larkham and Mark Ella, Cooper did things that others simply couldn’t.
That’s what it means to be great.
Quade Cooper hasn’t retired from Test rugby, and has instead signalled an intent to keep going, but last year’s Test in Dunedin could be the last time we see him in a Wallabies jumper.
Take a moment to appreciate how he made the Wallabies significantly better during some of their toughest periods in history as they came up against the all-conquering All Blacks.
So, if this is it, congratulations New Zealand for throwing Cooper off his game with the needless boos. It might have had an impact, sure, but it didn’t stop Quade from becoming a Wallabies great.