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New Zealand U20's first five abandoned his Arizona baseball dream to stay in rugby

By Adam Julian
Cooper Grant (middle) with the New Zealand U20s.

Cooper Grant was bound for Arizona on a baseball scholarship in 2022.

The opportunity fell on his lap after leaving Nelson College in 2021 but he’d have to wait eight months before baseball season started and the paperwork was complete to reside in the “Copper State.”

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Restless, Grant returned to rugby where his form was so impressive he caught the attention of the Crusaders Academy.

Grant eventually abandoned his baseball dreams and has just been selected for the New Zealand Under 20s to compete in the inaugural SANZAAR Under-20 Rugby Championship (TRC) on the Sunshine Coast.

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New Zealand will meet South Africa on Thursday, May 2, Argentina on Tuesday, May 7, and Australia on Sunday, May 12. Grant is a versatile outside back with a preference for the ten jersey.

“I got bored so I put the boots back on and fell in love with rugby again,” Grant told RugbyPass.

“The rugby environment in Tasman and the Crusaders is awesome. The prospect of leaving friends and family to go to such a big place where I knew nobody was daunting.

“I can play fullback, second-five, or ten. I like ten because I can lead the boys around the field. I’m a triple threat: catch, pass, and run. Attacking the line and moving the ball at pace are key parts of my game.”

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Grant was a crucial figure in the Crusaders Under 20 Super Rugby success in Taupo.

Under the coaching of Kieran Coll (Canterbury U19 National title winner),  Alex Robertson (Canterbury Assistant), Hoani MacDonald (Tasman), and Brandon Smith (Tasman) the Crusaders conquired the Highlanders (40-24), Blues (26-22) and Chiefs (31-17) to capture the title.

“We had three camps before the tournament which set us up well. The boys connected straight away and we simplified the game plan from last year, which gave the boys more confidence to play what was in front of them,” Grant said.

“We made hard work of the Blues semi-final, but defence was a massive part of our culture. Defence is about working hard for each other, refusing to give an inch, and making those extra efforts when you’re totally knackered.

“Our forwards were brutal in the final. We won the collision, shut them down out wide, and were able to express ourselves a bit.”

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Grant thrived in the Nelson College First XV, a traditional powerhouse in the Crusaders region.

Nelson has won three Crusaders First XV championships since 2019. The astute Jono Phillips, a key mentor of All Black Beauden Barrett (123 Tests, 734 points, 101 wins) is Nelson’s coach.

Nelson has produced four All Blacks in the last decade: Ethan Blackadder, Mitchell Drummond, Leicester Fainga’anuku, and David Havili.

“Jono came in 2019 and we did well winning the South Island final and making the National Top Four, ” Grant reflected.

“In 2020 we were a younger side who lost a couple of close ones but were heading in the right direction with mantras like ‘be professional before you are professional.’”

“In 2021 we won the South Island final again. My favourite game was against Otago Boys’ High School. It was my first time playing at Forsyth Barr Stadium which was a massive trip and Otago Boys were huge.

“We also beat Christ’s College twice in our Quad final and the Crusaders championship final. In both games, we made crap starts but came from a long way behind to win.”

In the Crusaders championship final, Nelson was down 15-3 at halftime but prevailed 22-20 following a try by Timi Sauria, converted by Grant, close to full-time.

“The Quad” is one of the oldest secondary school tourneys in New Zealand. It stretches back to 1930. Nelson was even further behind in that final. College Sport Media reported:

“Down 20-3, Nelson was cracked open three times, the same way. Assertive forward charges were followed by skip passes from pivot Jack Shearer to the flying wing of Jack Belcher who completed a first-half hat-trick. Christ’s were held up over the strip and denied from a narrow forward pass too…Irvine-intervention! Dylan thrust ahead and muscled over with the last play of the game. The conversion was kicked by Grant and Nelson salvaged an improbable 27-25 triumph. Nelson has won the tournament five times in the last seven years.”

Affiliated to Ngati Porou and Rangitane o Wairau, Grant was selected for the New Zealand Under 18 Maori team.

If that wasn’t impressive enough Grant was a shortstop and pitcher in softball and baseball capable of pitching the ball at 90mph.

He was the youngest player, aged 16, to represent the now-defunct Auckland Tuatara in the Australian baseball league.

Grant represented New Zealand in multiple age group teams, including New Zealand Under 23. His scholarship to Cochise College was to further his academic studies and to play baseball in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.

Cooper is the son of New Zealand Softball Hall of Fame pitcher Marty Grant. Marty played 54 tests for New Zealand between 1990 and 2009, winning 53 of them, including the World Series in 1996, 2000, and 2004. He holds the all-time Black Sox record for games pitched, innings pitched, strikeouts, and wins. Grant was named New Zealand Softball Player of the Year in 1991 and was Pitcher of the Year five times. He won eight provincial championships with Wellington, six of them consecutively, and also secured five national club titles with Poneke-Kilbirnie. He also spent several years playing in the North American leagues with a variety of teams.

“I grew up around the diamond and was pretty lucky to rub shoulders with the likes of Mark Sorenson, Thomas Makea, and Jarrad Martin who were all legends of the game who played with Dad,” Grant said.

“Dad never put any pressure on me to play softball or baseball. I loved it. I was fortunate enough to play professionally for the Tuatara at 16. If they stayed around, I might still be playing, I don’t know.”

Grant plays his senior rugby for Marist in Nelson where former All Blacks prop Kane Hames has assisted with the coaching. They were runners-up in the 2023 competition.

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