Much has been made of Brad Thorn’s decision to drop Quade Cooper from the Reds squad, telling him he is surplus to requirements in the pre-season without a satisfactory explanation other than telling the media he ‘struggled’ at everything.
Highlanders first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga added another theory that this is about Thorn installing an “Origin mentality” at the Reds and “it’s got nothing to do with him and he can’t do anything about it.”
It has nothing to do with him? This has everything to do with Quade Cooper. Let’s just call a spade a spade and attempt to piece together how this saga unfolded.
The relationship between the two when they were both players was never stable. The ‘beef’ on the field formed a rocky foundation to the relationship. They never really understood each other, and incidents that occurred on the field only served to feed perceptions.
2011 was the year the two came entangled in a litany of on-field exchanges. In the Super Rugby final, few will remember Brad Thorn being penalised for a foot trip – on none other than Quade Cooper. An unsportsmanlike, but deliberate act, and one Thorn escaped being carded for.
The Tri-Nations followed and Quade’s infamous knee to the head of All Black captain Richie McCaw sparked an on-field scuffle and national outrage in New Zealand. Brad Thorn, in particular, took exception and was the third man in, throwing Quade onto the deck in a visible display of disgust.
The incident occurred at the base of a ruck – one of many that Thorn would have ‘policed’ over his career. Cooper’s biggest mistake was a lack of craftiness. The knee was an obvious, ugly incident but not uncommon of underhand tactics employed at the time.
Cooper showed a willingness to rile the All Blacks in the open and become the antagonist – we know definitively that this got under McCaw’s skin. In his autobiography, he stated “Shortly after that happened, I was carrying and should have passed, but I lit up and I saw Quade standing in front of me and clattered into him instead,” before claiming players like Quade “get sorted”.
Is it hard to believe that other members of the All Blacks pack, like Thorn, felt the same way?
The incident became fuel for the New Zealand public to label Cooper “public enemy number one” heading into the 2011 Rugby World Cup, shaping Cooper’s image as a villain. In the Rugby World Cup semi-final, Thorn took pleasure at seeing Quade implode, at one point rubbing it in his face after the flyhalf spilled a bomb.
The two probably would say this is all water under the bridge. A foot trip, a knee and some words exchanged. However, when two professional competitors clash when stakes are high, the beginning of a ‘mutual dislike’ is highly probable.
Sometimes opposite don’t attract
Brad Thorn is an Australian who played for the All Blacks and Quade Cooper is a Kiwi who played for the Wallabies. Thorn was a shrewd tactical enforcer that loved the dirty work. Cooper was a peacocking playmaker that did things his way. Thorn is old school. Cooper was new hype. The two couldn’t be more different as players, and likely have different views on how the game should be played.
Based on on-field incidents there is an obvious conclusion to be made that there is a personal dislike or at least ‘indifference’ of one another. However, this alone is not enough to explain Thorn’s decision to drop Cooper. To understand it we have to consider the circumstances of the Reds organisation, going back to 2011.
The rise and fall of the Reds
Flashback to 2011 and modern-day patterns aren’t recognisable, zero-ruck strategies were almost non-existent and line speed wasn’t really a factor deployed by teams.
Playmakers like Quade could sit back deep and find substantially more space as forwards crowded around rucks. Enforcers like Thorn could roll their sleeves up and get involved in a heap of questionable activities at the ruck.
That backdrop paved the way for Cooper’s stratospheric rise in 2011. The Reds pulled off the impossible – beating Thorn’s Crusaders twice, including in the Super Rugby final. The Wallabies pulled off a Tri-Nations Championship with him at flyhalf. Cooper’s exuberant play was mesmerizing. It was unplanned at times, playing off raw instincts, throwing ridiculous behind the back passes and long cutouts.
In that era, you didn’t need to be clinical or retain possession with high levels of precision to be successful. Turnover ball was common, and errors were everywhere in the game. The breakdowns were a dog’s breakfast – it was niggly, messy and resulted in a slower game but with more space out wide. A risk-taker with immense talent, Quade flourished and became a superstar with wild play that sometimes paid off and sometimes didn’t.
Winning a Super Rugby title with a franchise that spent the better part of two decades in the doldrums brings a certain level of entitlement. It was both a blessing and a burden for the Reds. That 2011 Reds championship was a fairytale run, catapulting young stars like Will Genia and Quade Cooper to global stardom.
As they tried to build on that success, whispers of conflict surrounded the team. The Australian reported in 2013 that key strategist and mastermind of the 2011 tactics, Phillip ‘Chook’ Fowler, left after a difference of opinion over a player review. There was no indication that Quade was involved, but it started a new chapter where the players remained but the coaching staff began to move on.
Next came the Reds biggest mistake and all-time PR disaster, the recruitment of Richard Graham as head coach. Graham was at the Western Force at the time and had a player mutiny on his hands after he announced his Reds gig mid-season. They rallied to see him sacked – it was a premonition of things to come.
With growing player dissatisfaction, adding Graham to the mix at the Reds was like pouring kerosene on a fire.
Graham had not proven he was capable of being a successful Super Rugby coach, with a winning record below 30%. A team full of confident players with growing influence needed more. His bureaucratic, conservative approach and obsession with set-piece dominance was not the way the game was developing. Kiwi sides were speeding the game up, with skill-based play and new flat patterns aided by changes in breakdown laws.
First-hand accounts describe an authoritarian coach who didn’t build relationships with his players, only reserving conversations for the captain. The environment was far from collaborative, with player empowerment non-existent. Combined with poor strategy and game planning, this quickly became the worst possible place for a player with unique attacking skills like Cooper.
Appointing Graham effectively killed Cooper’s Super Rugby career and set the Reds back 10 years. They lost a host of key players over his reign, old and young. Graham took the team on a downward spiral that alienated the fan base and left stars like Cooper in limbo, who ultimately left the team for France. It was so bad that fans started a #sackrichardgraham campaign and nearly every post-match comment on social media called for Graham’s resignation as the team’s play deteriorated beyond repair.
In that kind of environment, players can easily develop poor habits out of frustration. The outside noise was impossible to ignore and the feeling of hopelessness descended on the leaders, many of whom jumped ship. When your most experienced players, ones who just delivered a championship, don’t have a say in what the team is doing when it clearly isn’t working, it’s a recipe for disaster.
It was a systemic organisational failure by the Reds to let the situation drag on and hand Graham a two-year extension, completely oblivious to the damage being done to both the fans and playing group. He was then sacked just two games into the 2016 season but the catastrophic fall was complete.
Quade’s return and Thorn’s appointment
Following Graham’s departure, the Reds’ favourite son returned home on a massive three-year contract with rookie head coach Nick Stiles now in charge.
It was like a public admission that the Reds had stuffed everything up, paying a massive price to have their best player back. It said ‘please come back and fix this mess’. That kind of leverage makes a player almost untouchable.
The team was in arguably the worst shape it had been in, desperate to regain relevance, and called its biggest hero from the past to make that happen. With a young impressionable squad and rather inexperienced coaching staff, never before had their been a situation at the Reds where one player held so much power.
This was Quade’s team now.
The appointment of Brad Thorn as head coach following the 2017 season was partly surprising. The Reds were moving onto their fourth coach in five years. He had limited previous head coaching professional experience having only retired from playing a few years ago.
When asked what he will bring to the Reds, Thorn extolled the virtues of culture.
“Probably number one thing is care, I’m big on the team caring about each other, big on caring about the cause and big on caring about who you represent,” he said.
‘I’m massive on working hard, you know talent is not enough’.
Were these the same words being repeated to Quade in private? You don’t care enough, you don’t work hard enough and your talent is not enough? He didn’t talk about skills or tactics or execution in that press conference, which is surprising given those were his reasons for Quade’s omission.
He explained his Queensland Country side was a test case in changing culture, which gave him belief after they won the NRC that he could do the same at the Reds.
Thorn wanted to change the culture and believed that couldn’t be done with Quade Cooper on the team. He could never mould the Reds into his team while it was Quade’s team, and one of them had to go. His personal dislike of him didn’t help, but it likely wasn’t the main deciding factor.
It was about power and control and Quade had too much of it.
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