MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The thatch of grey hair swept back from the forehead of Adam Ashley-Cooper is one of the more obvious reminders of the longevity of one of the most versatile players to ever pull on the gold Australia jersey.
The man nicknamed “Mr Fix-it”, for filling holes in the Wallabies backline, has been given another job in Japan where he will be only the second Australian player ever to reach four World Cups.
At 35, Ashley-Cooper will be among the oldest players running around in search of a trophy that has eluded twice champions Australia since 1999.
Such devotion to a cause is inspiring, but for the player, it may also be a sign of some kind of madness.
“I think when I got to Japan, and after a few years of being an outsider looking in and watching the guys, there was something there that was driving me to get back here and give it a crack,” said Ashley-Cooper, who arrived in the country in 2017 to play for Top League side Kobelco Steelers.
“Not a voice. Maybe a screw loose.”
Ashley-Cooper already holds a special place in Wallabies fans’ hearts as a test centurion with 37 tries, equal third all-time in the nation’s honour roll of scorers.
Three of the five-pointers came in the semi-final against Argentina at the 2015 World Cup in England, when Michael Cheika’s unfancied team made a surprise run to the final.
Although beaten by the All Blacks for the Webb Ellis Cup, the Wallabies were hailed on home shores for a brave tournament and Ashley-Cooper was farewelled fondly the following year when he departed for France.
That was supposed to be the end of Ashley-Cooper’s international career but as it turned out, not his ambitions.
Unfortunate to play in a period of decline for Australian rugby, Ashley-Cooper felt unfulfilled after three fruitless World Cups and the failure to prise a Bledisloe Cup from the all-conquering All Blacks through 10 mostly one-sided campaigns.
It has all added up to a big chip on his shoulder and one he hopes to shrug with triumph in the twilight of his career in Japan.
“(The chip) certainly didn’t go away after the final of the last World Cup,” he said in comments published by Rugby Australia’s website (rugby.com.au).
“I have played over 100 tests for the Wallabies and mate, I haven’t achieved anything significant in that jersey.
“That still fuels the fire …. Still does. So I had that, I had that feeling, that I was holding on to.”
Ashley-Cooper beat out a number of much younger talents for his spot in a Wallabies backline featuring a number of grey-beards, including veteran fullback Kurtley Beale and scrumhalf Will Genia.
The youngest in the team, uncapped teenage centre Jordan Petaia, is 16 years Ashley-Cooper’s junior.
At the squad’s unveiling in Sydney on Friday, Petaia had the same wide-eyed look of wonder that Ashley-Cooper wore when named for his first World Cup roster for the 2007 tournament in France.
Now a leader of the team, back then Ashley-Cooper was, in his words, a “bright-eyed young kid, fat-faced”, with a “mohawk mullet.”
“Now I have a few greys, as you can see,” he said.
“My experiences allow me to contribute in a different way to many: I have been to three World Cups, played a few tests, played in a few countries.
“I get to share that with guys around me. That’s my responsibility, just as senior guys did for me as the young bloke with an awful haircut.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)