By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Amid the boisterous support for the Queensland Reds in the Lang Park terraces on Saturday, there may be a few fans left misty-eyed when Will Genia and Quade Cooper return to their old stomping ground in Melbourne Rebels colours.
The former Wallabies team mates played a total of 232 matches for the Reds, almost all of them together as one of the most celebrated halves partnerships in the history of Australian Super Rugby.
While it was Genia who scored the match-winning try to seal the Reds’ maiden title in 2011, Cooper ran the decoy line up the left wing to divert the Canterbury Crusaders’ defence and ensure the stocky scrumhalf could complete his mad dash to the corner.
Just 23 at the time, the pair would eventually go their separate ways, departing the Reds in 2015 and heading to different clubs in France.
Their paths have crossed again, however, both given warm welcomes at Dave Wessels’ Rebels, and their revived partnership has raised the team’s hopes of finally cracking a playoffs spot eight years after joining the tournament in 2011.
“It was nice to be back out there with him and sometimes you build a relationship so strong that time doesn’t have any effect, you know?” Cooper said of his former Reds cohort.
“You kind of just slide back in there where you left off.
“I’m fortunate with Will … I guess we went through some of the same challenges together and that’s another way to build a good bond.”
Times have also changed for the Reds since Cooper and Genia’s day.
The crowds of 30,000-plus that used to flock to Lang Park to see their weekly “razzle dazzle” in Ewen McKenzie’s team are now a distant memory after some lean years in the championship.
Former All Blacks hard man Brad Thorn, a try-scorer for the Crusaders during the classic 2011 decider, now coaches the Reds and will undoubtedly have plans in place to try to derail the Rebels’ halves.
New Zealand-born Cooper will have special motivation to perform, having never been given a chance under Thorn through the entirety of a humiliating 2018 season.
Having returned to the Reds as first-choice flyhalf under Nick Stiles in 2017, 70-cap Wallaby Cooper was frozen out by Thorn and left to toil in Brisbane’s amateur club competition.
Since reuniting with Genia in Melbourne, the 30-year-old has been unable to resist taking potshots at Thorn.
After signing with the Rebels, he posted an action photograph of a Wallabies game on social media, showing him fending off All Black Thorn with a hand to the neck.
He wrote: “Sometimes you are forced out of the place you love but thank god there’s more than one place that loves me.”
He posted another snap-shot of himself bursting through a tackler during the Rebels’ match against the ACT Brumbies earlier this month, captioned: “One mans trash is another mans treasure.”
Cooper was among three former Wallabies exiled from the Reds by Thorn. Former inside centre Karmichael Hunt was banned for a second cocaine possession arrest in three years, while prop James Slipper tested positive to the same drug twice.
Hunt found a new home at the New South Wales Waratahs, while Slipper was picked up by the Brumbies.
Having given plenty to Queensland rugby, Cooper has mixed emotions about the state he left behind.
He is particularly thrilled for Hunt, who has performed well for the Waratahs after became a pariah in Queensland following his drug possession charge at the end of 2017.
“I know that ‘K’ (Hunt) went through hell last year and everybody was trying to make it difficult for him,” Cooper told Reuters in an interview.
“A club – and a state that he’s given a lot to, both rugby league and sport in general, even the club system — his local club — turned him away.
“If that was your son how would you feel if he was being isolated like that?”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)