Quade Cooper might have been in France for much of the past year but he says his heart never really left Ballymore.
Cooper, speaking at the announcement of his new three-year deal with the Reds and Australian rugby on Thursday, said it was hard to be an outsider as his former club was battling through another difficult season.
“The Reds [have] been the best part of my life for at least 12 years and throughout high school, when I finished high school, all I've known is Ballymore,” he said.
“I've spent more time here than I have at home and for me being over the other side of the world, waking up early in the morning and watching the games, it was tough to watch because I still watch the games as I'm invested in [it].
“Whether you're playing overseas or not, I've still played 107 games here.”
Cooper said his move to Toulon was one he needed but he couldn't shake the urge that he wanted to return to Australia and to Queensland.
“When I left to France, it was a time in my life where i thought I needed a change, whether that was for the full two years that I was supposed to be in Toulon or what, I knew that I had to make that decision and do that change,” he said.
While I was over there, I looked at my life, I realised I wanted to be back in Australia, that I still had a lot to give, I still had a lot that I wanted to achieve as well, putting on the gold jumper, playing again in the Reds jumper.
“They were in the forefront of my mind and so I thought, I'm still so hungry to be a part of that so I knew that it was time for me to come home.”
The mercurial playmaker kept in regular contact with new Reds coach Nick Stiles during his time away, though he says that wasn’t all about getting him to come home.
“Quade and I have been talking for a long time and a lot of it was just [that], Quade, he actually loves rugby,” he said.
“He'd watch our Reds games and he'd be texting you and sending you feedback on how we were going.
“He's got a genuine love for Queensland rugby and even though he's on the other side of the world, enjoying the French beaches…[his] heart was here at the Reds.”
While there is plenty of sentimentality in Cooper’s decision, his comeback also adds an intimidating element to Queensland’s young backline and Stiles is looking forward to having the 28-year-old at his disposal in 2017.
“[He] gives you that attacking ability, being able to play on the front foot, Quade's passing game is second to none, so it allows you to play with more width and... he brings other players into the game and we've got some pretty exciting footballers in this squad moving forward.
“As a backline, to think you've got Samu Kerevi, Campbell Magnay, Eto Nabuli, Chris Sautia, some really big, powerful ball-runners and now having Quade just probably guiding us around the park with a bit more experience and a bit longer pass allows us to play a pretty damaging style of football.”
Cooper was hedging his bets as to when his first appearance in the Reds jumper would come again, playing down the potential of fronting up for next year’s big-money Brisbane Tens.
“It's going to be a great spectacle the 10s, it'd be great to be out there and play but my focus is on making sure I’m in great shape to represent the Reds in Super Rugby next year and win titles. I'm not going to put myself in too much harm's way for no reason but I'd love to be out there. It's a great format of the game, it's a fast style and I'm sure it'll be very similar to the 7s.
Cooper is one of a trio of experienced Wallabies joining the Reds next season, along with George Smith and Stephen Moore, while backrower Leroy Houston has also returned to Queensland.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has sung the praises of Cooper since his return, saying he had come back a more mature player than when he left.
“I am very pleased that Quade has decided to return to Australia to play his rugby. His return brings back his trademark flair and X factor but also, after his experience overseas, a wiser approach to the way he can lead the team around the field," he said.
“I really believe he will make a big impact on the game both for Queensland and for the national team."