Tough-love Brad Thorn vs ‘toxic environment’ Quade Cooper

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    Quade Cooper's Reds career looks done and dusted. (AAP Image/Tertius Pickard)

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    Some members of the Australian rugby media and several players are upset about Brad Thorn’s decision to boot Quade Cooper out of his Reds squad, despite the controversial playmaker’s massive $650,000 annual contract from the Queensland Rugby Union.

    Thorn has been typically restrained about his reasons for this decision. He has pointed out something that is, or should be, obvious to anyone who knows anything about rugby: “I thought Quade last year… the team struggled, his game management, his attack, his defence (struggled).”

    This is being about as kind as any coach could be about why he is not going to risk a revival of his club on Cooper’s play, on and off the field.

    My guess is Thorn is deliberately not going deeply into his objections to Cooper being a Reds talisman because he is trying to protect Cooper in the hope that another club, presumably out of Australia (in Japan, perhaps?), will put him on their books.

    Thorn’s rugby coaching experience is based on the coaching he was given by three All Black coaches: Robbie Deans, Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.

    The essence of that coaching is the notion that ‘there is no I in team.’

    Over the weekend, the 55th annual Halberg Awards, New Zealand’s pre-eminent sports awards, presented current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen with the 2018 Sport New Zealand Leadership Award.

    Here is what Sport New Zealand CEO Peter Miskimmin told Hansen and the gathering why the award was made:

    “Steve Hansen is a world-class coach and he has fashioned a remarkable record to prove it. It’s not just his success that has set him apart as a great leader and coach but how he has gone about achieving it… He has rethought and reshaped his approach to how he coaches… he picks on character and culture and expects everyone to put the team first.”

    Let me repeat that last sentence: “He picks on character and culture and expects everyone to put the team first.”

    Let me be blunt here. If you are selecting a leader to enhance a culture that puts the team first, would that leader be Quade Cooper?


    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    No one during the Henry-Hansen era of the All Blacks and the Deans era of the Crusaders epitomised the cultural imperative to “put the team first” more than Brad Thorn.

    Not long after he joined the Crusaders from the Brisbane Broncos, Thorn was told he was going to be selected for a touring All Blacks side. At this stage of his code-switch, Thorn was not entirely certain whether he was in rugby for the long haul. He declined the offer of a place in the All Blacks.

    This is an example of how Thorn, the player, bought in the Crusaders-All Blacks culture of team first.

    Robbie Deans was the Crusaders coach responsible for bringing Thorn into rugby and for building up his skills to Test level in the code.

    To build up Thorn’s lineout skills, for instance, Deans and Thorn practised for hours in a drill involving throwing an old boot for Thorn to leap up and catch.

    The ultimate success of the drill came with the last lineout throw in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. The All Blacks had only to win the throw and boot the ball into touch to win the Webb Ellis trophy. Andrew Hore, the hooker, threw a short, hard throw to Brad Thorn. The catch was made. France were forced to commit a penalty to try and force a turnover. Game over.

    This photo taken on July 31, 2010 shows New Zealand All Black lock Brad Thorn (top) crashing through the tackle of Australian Wallaby winger James O'Connor (bottom) in their Tr-Nations and Bledisoe Cup rugby union Test match, in Melbourne.

    Thorn also learnt from Deans, Henry and Hansen that the team-first principle also applies to the coaches.

    Deans is famous for coming to practice before anyone else, for setting up the bags and so on, and then staying on long after the bulk of the players have left, working on the kicking, say, of Dan Carter.

    Henry and Hansen, too, are meticulous with their own homework and preparation and for trying to enforce a ‘no dickheads’ policy that ensures the team-first principle.

    Thorn was famously taciturn on and off the field as a player. He let his actions speak. But when he did occasionally speak – as a player and now as a coach – you get a sense of his profound belief that the quality of a player and his usefulness for the team is revealed by how he reacts to tough times.

    AAP’s Vince Rugari recently wrote a brief but fascinating article on how ‘Brad Thorn embraces bad times at Ballymore,’ which opened this way:

    “The most-treasured memories in Brad Thorn’s storied 22-year dual code career weren’t necessarily the ones involving trophies. They were the bad moments, the deep, dark struggles from which success eventually bloomed.

    “With Queensland arguably at one of their lowest Super Rugby ebbs, new Reds coach Thorn wants his players to see things from the same perspective.”

    With this insight into Thorn’s coaching philosophy, it is easy enough to see why he doesn’t want Cooper anywhere near his young team of battlers.

    As Thorn pointed out to Rugari: “I don’t want to be a guy that’s talking a whole heap… I prefer action, and we’ll see how we go.”

    Implicit in this statement, too, is the notion that he doesn’t want his players talking all the time, either.

    It has been somehow forgotten by the Fairfax Media rugby writers that Thorn actually played against Cooper. He experienced Cooper’s ‘tactics’ as an All Black. He knew how the Cooper antics distracted the Wallabies and inspired New Zealand to smash Australia in the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final.

    Australia`s Quade Cooper is yellow carded and leave the pitch

    (AAP Image/ David Rowland)

    Thorn has also noted that the Cooper trash-talk has most likely had a negative effect on the performance of the Reds over the years, except in 2011 where Cooper was brilliant in winning the Super Rugby tournament for Queensland.

    I don’t doubt, too, that Thorn has had some conversations with Robbie Deans about Cooper’s Twitter rant on the Wallabies and Deans in 2012: “I love rugby but there’s s*** going on behind and above the players that effects (sic) the whole organisation.”

    When a Twitter follower told Cooper he should be allowed to play his attacking game, the player responded: “I am allowed from February to May, sir. If people want to go out and play a boring brand of football then there’s other guys they can pick to do that.”

    Later, Cooper elaborated on these criticisms suggesting that he was critical not only of Deans but also of the ARU as an organisation: “There’s a lot of people who are afraid to say what they feel so they just go along with it and nothing is going to change. That’s why I feel so strongly as a player. I don’t want to be involved in the toxic environment, and that’s how it is at the moment.”

    And why was the Deans’ Wallabies camp so toxic? Answer: “It’s an environment where things aren’t going to plan and everyone is looking to point the finger.”

    The Australian’s Wayne Smith has been one of Cooper’s strongest supporters. But even the veteran rugby writer was rightly tough on Cooper for his “toxic environment” statement. In a trenchant article headed, ‘Quade Cooper’s rant lifts the lid on deeper team malaise‘, Smith noted:

    “There is widespread bewilderment within the Wallabies over Cooper’s talk of a toxic environment within the team. About the only toxicity they’re aware of is that flowing from apparent double standards and the fact that, in their view, a string of incidents, some trivial others a lot serious, are allowed to pass without there being any serious consequences. Even now, they’re dumbfounded at the ARU staying silent in the fact of Cooper’s dramatic attack.”

    In October 2012, Cooper apologised for his “toxic environment” statement and paid a $40,000 fine.

    There is some heartening support for Thorn from the new CEO of Rugby Australia, Raelene Castle. Her comments on Cooper’s contract suggest that, finally, someone in Rugby Australia understands that money can’t be thrown at players who do not deliver, on and off the field:

    “The interesting thing about player contracting is that it’s not a perfect science and knowing whether to contract players for three or four years or one year or two years. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes like the Quade situation, you get into a situation where you go, ‘Gee, if I had the benefit of hindsight I might have contracted for a shorter period of time.'”

    This is a splendid statement by Castle. It points to a realisation that Thorn was right to take the toughest approach possible to ensure that the ‘no I in team’ principle is the best and really the only foundation to rebuild the shattered Reds fortress.

    Brad Thorn and Raelene Castle are on the right track with their tough-love approach to Australia’s Super Rugby and Wallabies players.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (218)

    • February 12th 2018 @ 11:08am
      Frank O'Keeffe said | February 12th 2018 @ 11:08am | ! Report

      Nick Shehedie just passed away! This is horrible news!

      • February 12th 2018 @ 12:43pm
        Bakkies said | February 12th 2018 @ 12:43pm | ! Report

        RIP Nick

        • February 12th 2018 @ 3:37pm
          Linphoma said | February 12th 2018 @ 3:37pm | ! Report

          Respects for their loss to Dame Marie and the family.

          • Roar Guru

            February 12th 2018 @ 8:39pm
            Jokerman said | February 12th 2018 @ 8:39pm | ! Report

            Oh..if only Cooper had stayed away from McCaw. Couldn’t his ego have been happy to niggle say just an All Black winger?

            It almost has a Greek mythology god-like feel to it all. Cooper staring into the Aotearoa lake waters…

            The rebel without a cause…but there is a cause. The ego takes you places but the pain aways returns you to the heart. Eventually you learn: just stay with the heart.

            Well said, Spiro.

            • February 12th 2018 @ 11:13pm
              Bakkies said | February 12th 2018 @ 11:13pm | ! Report

              How many All Black wingers lie on the ground and on the wrong side of the ruck?

              • February 13th 2018 @ 3:24pm
                Jerry said | February 13th 2018 @ 3:24pm | ! Report

                How many fly halves think their job is to be a ruck enforcer?

        • February 12th 2018 @ 6:00pm
          sheek said | February 12th 2018 @ 6:00pm | ! Report

          Yeah Frank & Bakkies,

          Nick was a good man.

    • February 12th 2018 @ 11:16am
      MARTO said | February 12th 2018 @ 11:16am | ! Report

      Pffft me and the lads will be watching all South Magpies club games this year..Pfffft the Reds. 10 reasons off the top of my head…

      1 Free carpark
      2 Free entry
      3 Cheaper bear
      4 Better food
      5 Better Quality rugby
      6 Better coaches
      7 Putting money back into local grassroots, and my club
      8 Quade is playing
      9 Mingling with former souths reds and Wallabies players
      10 Thorn won`t be there

      • Roar Pro

        February 12th 2018 @ 1:27pm
        Andy Thompson said | February 12th 2018 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

        How much do you usually pay for bears?

        • February 12th 2018 @ 1:34pm
          MARTO said | February 12th 2018 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

          If you knew us Queenslanders ole bald one, you`d know it is Bundy Rum i speak of..haha.. About $4.50 a can champ..

        • Roar Guru

          February 12th 2018 @ 5:01pm
          Fox said | February 12th 2018 @ 5:01pm | ! Report

          Depends…would be a Grizzly Lager – a Panda Stout – a Brown Ale – a Polar Pale Ale – a stiff Black Guiness with a Asian light for the driver?

    • February 12th 2018 @ 11:18am
      Frank O'Keeffe said | February 12th 2018 @ 11:18am | ! Report

      Back to the article…

      I’m in two minds regarding the Quade Cooper decision. Australian rugby hasn’t exactly been making the most logical economical decisions in recent times.

      The fact of the matter is, Quade Cooper is getting paid huge money from the Queensland Rugby Union and Australian rugby are seeing no gains from all that money paid. What a waste of money! It seems to me like Brad Thorn should accept that the QRU made a decision and he has to try and make it work.

      At the same time, Cooper’s stocks have been well-down since 2011. I thought Quade played well for parts of 2013. His performance against Wales in 2013, before he got yellow-carded, was brilliant! However, Australian rugby has never had a confidence player like him, and his confidence has been shakey since his disasterous 2011 World Cup.

      I don’t Quade ever recovered from the quarter-final and especially didn’t recover from the semi-final – that was scatter-brained nonsense.

      Do you want another example?

      David Pocock has all my respect for the wonderful human being that he is (saving rhinos, etc), but he got paid by the ARU while he was playing in Japan… And now he needs surgery! I’m very pessimistic that we’ll ever see the David Pocock of the 2011 World Cup quarter-final against the Springboks again. He’s had so many injuries and he’s put on too much muscle.

      The general feeling in Sydney right now, from what I gather, is that people are down on the game. Rugby Union thrives on volunteers at grassroots level, and people are just apathetic right now. The only bright light last year in Sydney was the massive crowd that saw Waringah win the Sydney Premiership. It showed there’s still life in Australian rugby.

      • February 12th 2018 @ 12:32pm
        Fionn said | February 12th 2018 @ 12:32pm | ! Report

        Pocock was as good in the 2015 RWC as in 2011, and his 2016 match against France (the only one where Hooper didn’t play) was the best performance by an Aussie 7 that year.

      • February 12th 2018 @ 1:14pm
        JP said | February 12th 2018 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

        So what`s Bernard Foleys excuse for being so poor for his entire career except two games againt Wales and England?

        Both of those in 2015.He has a mortgate of the 10 ROLE EVEN WHEN

      • February 12th 2018 @ 1:19pm
        JP said | February 12th 2018 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

        So Frank what is Bernard Foley`s reason for being paid handsomely playing poorly and being continually picked when he has had only 2 great games in his entire career for the Wallabies ?. Wales and England Both 2015. Quade played much better than Foley in 2016 whilst Foley was abysmal.Why has Foley never been dropped or even relegated to the bench under Cheikas tenure?

        • February 12th 2018 @ 9:04pm
          Mmmmm..k said | February 12th 2018 @ 9:04pm | ! Report


          If you say things that are extreme and untrue about a player, like you just said about Foley, it’s a bit of a give away that a healthy and reasonable discussion about the subject isn’t possibly going to happen with you.

          Foley is OK.
          He’s not great but he’s had more than 2 good games for Australia.

          Let’s keep it real.

          • February 14th 2018 @ 11:08am
            JP said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:08am | ! Report

            mmmmmmm k @

            You accept mediocrity then if Foley is ok for you.You answered my question.

            P.S If what i said is extreme about him, point me to his other good games ,i`ll be waiting a long time for you to get back to me.Probably never.

        • February 12th 2018 @ 9:10pm
          scubasteve said | February 12th 2018 @ 9:10pm | ! Report

          you missed the point. It is not directed at his playing (though in question) but at his attitude and how it impacts a team. Foley despite his play I would image positively impacts the team. You Quade lovers really need to pop your head up and look around.

          • February 12th 2018 @ 9:23pm
            Ruckin Oaf said | February 12th 2018 @ 9:23pm | ! Report

            Tis funny though it’s not Quade’s team-mates that are saying what a terrible attitude he has. Or his former coaches.

            For the most part it’s media and social media-commentators. Even Thorn hasn’t bagged his attitude.

            Odd how the people best place to comment on his attitude are those most remote from him,

            • February 13th 2018 @ 7:02am
              Karl K said | February 13th 2018 @ 7:02am | ! Report

              Ruckin oaf you’re spot on. Quades attitude appears to have been examplary since 2012. Seems to be well like by his peers and is definitely a leader on the field. I don’t think it’s his attitude that would have made Thorn drop him.

          • February 14th 2018 @ 11:12am
            JP said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:12am | ! Report

            ” Foley despite his play I would image positively impacts the team ” Oxymoron anyone? ??

    • Roar Guru

      February 12th 2018 @ 11:23am
      Atawhai Drive said | February 12th 2018 @ 11:23am | ! Report

      Well said, Spiro.

      At this time of year, rugby is yet to fully emerge from its brief hiatus (other than the soporific Sevens and tedious Tens), but there is space to be filled in the sports pages of the mainstream media.

      With little else going on, rugby scribes with daily deadlines have been handed a lifeline in the form of the Cooper saga. Cooper’s old playing buddies have been all too ready to complain about how unfair it all is, in their view, and those views have duly made it into print.

      Brad Thorn wants to start his coaching duties at the Reds with a clean sheet, or as near to it as possible. He has every right to do that. Quade Cooper does not figure in Thorn’s plans. Tough on Cooper, but he is not the first and will not be the last professional sportsman to find himself unwanted. Where he goes from here is up to him,

      • February 12th 2018 @ 3:19pm
        Peter said | February 12th 2018 @ 3:19pm | ! Report

        If Quade wasn’t going to fit into Thorn’s plans for 2018, surely Thorn was discussing this with QRU management from shortly after he was appointed. Why was Quade’s exclusion announced 2 days after the QRU published the Reds player roster for 2018, which included Quade and Quade was featured prominently in promotional material for the 2018 season? Spur of the moment decision which is hard to reverse when everything goes pear-shaped???

        • February 12th 2018 @ 7:01pm
          Bakkies said | February 12th 2018 @ 7:01pm | ! Report

          It’s not just Cooper in this situation. Nick Frisby is in the same boat.

    • Roar Guru

      February 12th 2018 @ 11:25am
      Atawhai Drive said | February 12th 2018 @ 11:25am | ! Report

      Why on earth has my post attracted the baleful eye of the moderation filter?

    • Roar Guru

      February 12th 2018 @ 11:42am
      pformagg said | February 12th 2018 @ 11:42am | ! Report

      Yeah, contracts need to be capped at 2 years. Quade was great in 2011, but that is 7 long years without a year-long form. Time to move on, and restart the Red’s culture, systems and personal.

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