Rugby league may feel it’s gone close to snaring Quade Cooper this week, but it could have been much, much different. In fact the boot could have been on the other foot if not for a quirk of fate which saw Cooper follow the rugby union path at 16.
Looking back, the Wallabies sensation – the subject of massive NRL offers – knows he could so easily have fallen through the cracks in the 15-man code.
It was a Sliding Doors moment when the New Zealand-born-and-raised teenager trialled for the Queensland under-16 rugby team at a time he played and excelled at both codes in the rough-and-tumble area of Logan, south of Brisbane.
Dual international Michael O’Connor, then a talent scout for the ARU’s national junior program, attended the trials and was so taken by Cooper’s talents he almost immediately put the chains in place to lock in the youngster.
O’Connor and former Wallabies winger Paul Carozza combined with one of Brisbane’s most prestigious private schools, Anglican Church Grammar, for Cooper to gain a sports scholarship at “Churchie”.
“We thought this guy could easily slip through the cracks and play rugby league because he was in that area of Logan, a league area, and if we didn’t put him in a good program he could be lost to rugby league,” O’Connor told AAP.
“It was good for him too – the whole experience of going to a school like Churchie and having the extra discipline.
“It was good for both parties.”
Churchie certainly reaped the rewards as Cooper, playing alongside a young David Pocock, became GPS rugby premiers.
Cooper, speaking last week, admitted the culture shock of the switch from his tough school at Springwood High to Churchie was immense but important to his education and development.
In sporting terms, though, he points to the move as being pivotal in gaining a Super 14 contract with the Queensland Reds at 18, allowing him to now be entrenched as a starting Wallaby.
“If I hadn’t have gone to Churchie it would have pushed things back a few years,” he told AAP.
“I think eventually (I might have made the Reds) but the fact I got those opportunities I’m so fortunate because it sped the process up and put me in front of the right people.
“And the pathway for me would have been a lot different.
“I think I would have more gone down the league channel considering Springwood was a league school and a state school.”
Against school rules at Churchie, Cooper kept playing league for his local club on Sundays, registered under another name.
His desire to play both codes was also reflected in his talent in league, and the 22-year-old has little doubt he could make an instant splash if he signed with NRL suitors Parramatta or Newcastle.
O’Connor, who played 12 Tests for the Wallabies before switching to league where he starred for St George and Manly as well as NSW and the Kangaroos, is just as convinced.
“He would have made it in league,” he said.
“He’s a very talented kid, he’s had a football in his hand from a very young age and he’s tough kid who’s grown up in tough areas in NZ and Logan.
“People will say rugby league would be good for his defence but it’s just something that he hasn’t prioritised in rugby.
“Rugby league is played at the (advantage) line and that’s the way he plays, taking the ball to the line.”
Cooper has copped his share of criticism from both sides for playing hard ball with the ARU to bump up an unpalatable original offer.
Some in rugby, including former Wallabies hooker Brendan Cannon, have labelled him greedy after the ARU and QRU supported him after the five-eighth was arrested for burglary on the Gold Coast last December.
But revelations on Friday that he was under the influence of sleeping tablets at the time, following a long flight back from the Grand Slam tour of Britain, provided by Wallabies medics threw a new twist on the incident.
So too reports his original offer from the ARU was $30,000 below that made to a former Test player who hadn’t featured for the Wallabies since 2007.
The insulting offer prompted the Australian Super 14 player of the year to meet with Eels officials on August 12, sparking the cross-code tug-of-war for his playmaking services.
O’Connor never thought Cooper would switch codes.
“It would be a waste,” he said. “We still haven’t seen the best of him yet.
“He’s still young and he could be one of the greats of the game if he stays in rugby.
“If he wants to go to rugby league to me it would be premature because he still hasn’t achieved anything in the game.”