Were the satirist Chris Lilley ever to distil the excesses of modern-day sport into a single comic character, Quade Cooper would be the perfect muse, from the tats to the tweets to the tabloids. With a surplus of self-promotion and a shortfall of self-awareness, the 24-year-old rugby star is every inch a celebrity sportsman for our times. The Wallabies’ five-eighth doubles both as the Australian game’s biggest talent and its most gormless boofhead. He also appears to suffer from what English cricket fans would recognise as a chronic case of ‘Kevin Pietersenitus’: the conviction, nurtured inwardly and projected outwardly, that the sport is subordinate to the self.
His Quadeness has even tried to mount a one-man coup against Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, wounding him first on Twitter and then going in for the kill in a television interview on rugby’s version of Insiders, The Rugby Club on Fox Sports. In a barely coherent diatribe, the injured player, who is presently in a contract dispute with the Australian Rugby Union, complained of a ‘toxic environment’ within the national set-up, and even went as far as to say he would not play under the present management team when restored to full fitness.
Until he went public, it was not hard to sympathise with Cooper, an attacking playmaker whose flamboyance has been stifled in a defence-oriented outfit. Watching him perform has been like listening to an improvisational jazz trumpeter being asked each year to play ‘The Last Post’ at the dawn service. For a time, he accepted it was his patriotic duty to stick to the music. But eventually he felt the need to let rip, even at the risk of offending the veterans. Now the Queenslander stands accused of wrecking the entire clubhouse. Nor has it helped his cause that he referred to the Wallabies uniform as ‘the yellow jersey’ rather than the gold.
The Cooper kerfuffle caps an awful year for Australian rugby, a real annus horribilis, to use a phrase unlikely to be punched out on Quade’s Twitter feed. It began on 16 October last year, when Australia were beaten by the All Blacks in the semi-final of the World Cup, and has continued pretty much uninterrupted ever since. It has included an embarrassing home defeat to lowly Scotland, the world’s ninth-ranked side, and two thumping ‘blackwashes’ against New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup.
The team seems cursed. Three captains, James Horwill, David Pocock and Will Genia, have suffered long-term injuries, while the queue for the physio’s room is so long that the Wallabies’ so-called ‘Broken XV’ is far superior to the often meagre-looking team presently taking the field.
Going into the World Cup, the Wallabies’ talented young ‘Three Amigos’ — Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor — were poised to set the tournament alight. Alas, Cooper and Beale were complete flops. As for the injured O’Connor, he has been a ubiquitous presence in vitamin advertisements but absent from the field.
At state level, too, Australian rugby is in recession. An already shallow pool of talent has had to supply a new franchise, the Melbourne Rebels. This is akin to water from the Murray-Darling Basin having to provide for an entirely new state: the result, drought conditions almost everywhere. Only one team, last season’s champions the Queensland Reds, made it through to the knock-out stage of the Super 15, while three of the bottom five spots in the league were occupied by teams with an Australian flag next to their names: the Rebels, the Western Force and the New South Wales Waratahs. The Sydney-based franchise now seems in an almost perpetual state of dysfunction, while the Force is upending the ‘Go West’ spirit of the Australian economy: its best players, like O’Connor and the brilliant Pocock, are beating a path eastward.
‘Disruption and decay’ are everywhere, complains Greg Growden, the Sydney Morning Herald’s retiring rugby writer. ‘The defibrillator paddles have to be applied,’ says the Australian’s Wayne Smith, ‘and the first jolt needs to shake loose Robbie Deans from the coaching position.’
As taciturn as Cooper is tattooed, Deans has not adapted well since his move almost five years ago from New Zealand, where he stewarded the mighty Canterbury Crusaders to a record five Super titles. While his tenure has not been an unmitigated disaster — last year, he took the Wallabies to their first tri-nations victory, and the number two world ranking — his selection policies and tactics have been surprisingly changeable. The Wallabies have this year fielded five different full-backs and seven different centre combinations, which is partly through injury but also because of erratic selections. Deans’ gameplan focuses on stopping tries rather than scoring them, a sad comedown for a team once built around attacking buccaneers like David Campese and Mark Ella.
So lifeless has the style of play become that there have been times when I have suspected that Deans is secretly in cahoots with Mark Latham, and thus intent on proving the Latham Doctrine: that league is indeed the game that draws the celestial crowds, while union is broadcast on a continual loop in Purgatory, with extra replays of scrum collapses. Let us give thanks, then, for New Zealand, with their heavenly gales of attacking rugby.
What next? An away win against Argentina eases the pressure slightly on Robbie Deans, and he now looks set to take the team on its annual tour of the northern hemisphere, where at least three wins out of four against France, England, Italy and Wales will be needed to keep his job. Adding to the sense of instability and crisis, however, is the surprise departure last week of John O’Neill, the ARU’s longstanding chief executive, a Deans ally and a Cooper critic.
Just about the strongest reason not to sack Deans right now is that Cooper wants him gone. Were the New Zealander to stay, Australian rugby might lose its most lavishly gifted player to league. Such has been his adolescent petulance, however, that the Wallabies and their fans may well end up sighing, ‘Whatever’.
Nick Bryant, a BBC foreign correspondent, is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.