Quade Cooper: "When I go and train hard, put in good performances, that's what I'll be remembered for". Photo: Reuters
For a long time, it seemed as if Quade Cooper couldn't put a foot right in front of the Australian rugby public. Many would argue he didn't help himself, whether it be nights out with James O'Connor or his messy fallout with Robbie Deans.
Queensland Reds fans gave him more latitude than most, given his brilliance in 2011 when the province won the Super Rugby title. But once he flew over the Tweed border, it became a much harder sell.
Now Cooper seems to be making headway in the battle for hearts and minds, winning over Wallabies supporters as well as his teammates, who have witnessed rapid personal growth for a man now determined to make every post a winner in his second chance at the highest level.
Cooper can sense it, as well, although he's hardly getting carried away with the odd kind word in the press, or praise for the kind of maturity that has seen him mentioned as a potential Wallabies captain. These days, Cooper remains one of the better interviews in rugby but can't help but occasionally sound like a motivational speaker. Being praised for good work simply means you do more work, he says.
But he admits it is gratifying to know some of his long-time critics are finally starting to embrace his new approach to life and football.
''People are going to have different opinions of me, whether I like it or not. But to see some of the things being written and said about me, it is quite heart-warming to know that the hard work is being recognised,'' said Cooper, who returned to Ballymore early to begin his pre-season.
''That just means I have to continue to work hard. I can't just think, 'Someone said something nice about me, that's cool, that's good enough'.
''The things that matter are how I turn up to training, how I'm seen by my teammates. When I go and train hard, put in good performances, that's what I'll be remembered for.''
There's a long way to go yet but if Cooper was appointed Wallabies captain by Ewen McKenzie, it would mark the completion of one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Australian sport, from outcast and pariah to inspirational leader. Even Cooper has to pinch himself to think he is even in the conversation to take over from Ben Mowen, who will move to France at the end of the Super Rugby season.
''Guys are throwing up my name as a possibility of being Wallaby captain. I look back six months and think there's no way that could have happened,'' Cooper said. ''I know that the hard work is paying off. You have to keep working hard.''
For the record, Cooper isn't expecting to be given the nod. Will Genia, previous captain James Horwill and the returning David Pocock all have claims of their own. He said he remained focused on taking the Wallabies to the next level, with next year's World Cup the goal.
''We want to be a team that, come World Cup, we're right up there and winning, not just a team with a lot of potential. I'm not focusing on captaincy issues,'' Cooper said.
Cooper has returned to Ballymore in fine fettle, given he is also preparing for his second boxing bout in late January.
In the meantime, he said he would be continuing to add the extras at Reds training as Queensland try to ensure they are there when the whips are cracking under new coach Richard Graham.
''Hard work off the field is the stuff that really matters, the stuff when people aren't looking. Those are the things that really pick up your game,'' Cooper said.
''I always say to the younger guys that when you get given a schedule of training, that's a bare minimum. If you want to be the best you have to work outside those parameters.
''That's something I've applied to my game as a rugby player and as a person,'' he said.