British and Irish Lions 2013: Quade Cooper’s angelic conversion

Queensland Reds star is relishing the prospect  of captaining his team against the Lions today as he strives to leave behind his controversial past. But will his efforts be enough to earn a recall to Australian colours, asks Chris Hewett

Their supporters – and there are many thousands of them in Wallaby country, most of them of an anti-establishment persuasion – call them “the three amigos”. The disapproving, who are fewer in number and rather more buttoned-up, refer to them as “the terrible trio”. They may yet come to be known, not least to a Lions hierarchy fearful of their potential to wreak havoc on a rugby field, as “hell’s triumvirate”. But when all is said and done, collective terms sit uneasily with individuals as distinctive as Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Quade Cooper.

Imagine the Lions picking Gavin Henson, Danny Cipriani and Chris Ashton in the same back division and you begin to get the picture. Beale, a player of Aboriginal descent, is blessed with a God-given rugby talent equalled only by a gift for surrounding himself with some bad friends and drinking himself into trouble. The cherubic O’Connor, a butter-wouldn’t-melt type from the Gold Coast, has also had his run-ins with authority, albeit of a very different kind and to a very different degree.

And then there is Cooper, the most talked about sporting figure in the whole of Australia right now and the man charged with leading the Queensland Reds, one of the world’s great rugby teams, against the tourists today. When Rob Howley, the Lions attack coach, was asked about the outside-half yesterday following a final training run at the indescribably swanky Anglican Church Grammar School, situated a mere drop-kick away from the cricketing cathedral of the Gabba, he unhesitatingly described him as a “bums on seats” player. On the wall to the right of Howley hung a school photograph of a 17-year-old Cooper and a bunch of fellow muddied teenagers celebrating victory in the 2005 Brisbane Schools Premiership. There is no escaping the bloke.

Yet Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, appears to be doing everything in his power to put big distance between himself and one of Australian rugby’s richest, most electrifying footballing talents – a reaction, everyone assumes, to Cooper’s acidic criticism of life with the national team last year. He described the Wallaby environment as “toxic”, adding that he had no desire to be a part of it, and was fined around £25,000 for his trouble. He has not played international rugby since, and it may be that  he will not do so again as long as Deans remains in charge. Even if he brings the house down against the Lions today, there is no guarantee  he will be drafted into a Test squad that already features Beale and O’Connor. Maybe Deans  feels two out of three “amigos” is enough to be going on with.

Yesterday, Cooper was the very picture of diplomacy. Indeed, any similarity between the current Quade and the one who hit the bullseye with a series of verbal darts – “If people want to go out there and play a boring brand of rugby, there’s other guys they can pick to do that”, was one of the sharpest – seemed purely coincidental. Cooper sidestepped questions about a possible Wallaby recall as smoothly as he would a flanker running on two wooden legs, effortlessly switching the focus to matters provincial.

“Do I want to be involved in the business end of the Lions tour? I’d call this the business end,” he remarked. “It’s certainly that for the guys picked for this game, because there aren’t many people who get to play against a Lions team. You can’t be distracted by things that may or may not happen. If you are, the game ahead can’t matter much to you. I’d like to be involved with the Wallabies, but I’m not spending time thinking about it. It’s not hard not to think about it, either. I want this weekend’s game to be one of the most amazing I’ve ever been part of, and that’s as far as my thinking goes.”

Cooper controversies have become annual events and his relationship with Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice a dream for the glossies. In 2010, a charge of burglary was laid against him – two laptops had allegedly gone missing from an address in Surfer’s Paradise – and then dropped after completion of a “justice mediation process”.

A year later, his increasingly fractious relationship with the great All Black flanker and captain Richie McCaw ensured he was given a seriously rough ride by crowds at the World Cup tournament in New Zealand. Cooper’s error-ridden performance when the two countries met on semi-final weekend in Auckland was both mocked and celebrated by the locals, simultaneously and in equal measure. Yet fair-minded observers left Eden Park that night with their regard for Cooper immeasurably enhanced. An outside-half operating at the very peak of his powers would have struggled to hold himself together against a rival as motivated as McCaw, for whom every tackle was a career-defining act and every 50-50 ball a potential deal breaker.

For an outside-half struggling to complete the most basic of tasks without making a mug of himself, it was pure purgatory. That Cooper never once allowed his energy level to drop or his commitment to fade – that in the face of complete humiliation, he continued to ransack his box of tricks for the full 80 minutes without so much as a single flicker of despair – said everything that needed saying about his professional pride.

He was born in that very city, of Maori stock, but moved south to Tokoroa, a small timber-producing town in Waikato, and spent his childhood wanting to be the second Christian Cullen, the first being the reigning All Black full-back of the time. “It was bare feet back in those days, with games starting at 7am,” he recalled a couple of years ago. “I was just skin and bones, but my mum persuaded me to keep playing with the bigger kids by promising me bubble gum. That was a big lure.

“That and watching Cullen play. I used to practise his step every day as I walked to school. I’d be stepping letterboxes, cats, dogs, anything that was in the way. I was a small guy growing up, so to see Cullen do the things he did as a pretty small guy in the Test arena was inspirational. I wanted to follow his lead.”

With his family, Cooper crossed the Tasman as a 16-year-old, leaving behind a rugby-loving cousin in Sean Maitland, who made his international debut for Scotland in this year’s Six Nations and is now touring here as a Lions wing. The two men got together on Thursday night for a  catch-up at the Wallaby’s house. “He didn’t give me any info – just showed me all the kit he’s been given,” the Queensland man said with a shake of the head. “We had a good yarn and told some old stories. I enjoyed the one about beating him in a cross-country race when we were kids.”

There is precious little to dislike about Cooper when he sits down to talk rugby and associated matters, yet Deans – a fellow New Zealander, it should be mentioned – clearly has a problem with him. He has spoken warmly of O’Connor’s talents as a No 10, even though the Melbourne Rebels star is better known as a back-three player of  high calibre, and kept a squad place open when Beale checked himself into rehab, welcoming him with warm words and open arms on his return. On the subject of Cooper, however, he has said precious little.

Yesterday, the Reds skipper was more comfortable talking about the good fortune of his close friend Beale than about his own ostracism. “For a guy like Kurtley, who’s had his ups and downs this year, it’s good that he’s been able to work his way back into a position where he might play some Test rugby,” he commented. “You never want to see a mate get into strife. If his name is read out when they name the Wallaby team to play the Lions, I’ll be happy for him.”

Would he not be happy for himself, should he also receive the call? “You never go out there not to make a team,” he replied. “You put out the best performance you can and if you’re chosen, you’re chosen. If things happen for me, great. If they don’t, it’s not as if I won’t be a happy person. I’m enjoying life. I live in a great country, have a great family, a great coach, great team-mates… and I’m playing against the Lions this weekend. There’s nothing to be sad about.”

Hell’s triumvirate: The terrible trio’s misdeeds

Quade Cooper

Burglary charges dropped in 2010 after he paid compensation to the victim. Fined a record Aus$60,000 (£25,000) and given a suspended three-match ban by the Wallabies after he said the Australian camp was a “toxic set-up”.

James O’Connor

Suspended by the ARU after not attending Australia’s 2011 World Cup squad announcement as a result of going out the night before.

Kurtley Beale

Sent home from Melbourne’s Super 15s tour of South Africa in March after a drunken brawl with team-mate Cooper Vuna. Has just spent two weeks in rehab for an alcohol problem.

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