"It pisses me off": Adam Ashley-Cooper opens up on why he refused to walk into the sunset

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

On the other side of 30, Adam Ashley-Cooper was perfectly entitled to pocket a year or two of French pay cheques and slip quietly into retirement. 

A nice gig in television commentary perhaps, or the ever-spinning, three-stool corporate circuit.

And, for a while after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Ashley-Cooper did bank the euros; having left Australian rugby to play for Bordeaux.

After two seasons, the Top 14 club and Ashley-Cooper parted ways and it was here that the warmth of a commentary booth or sponsors tent must have been mighty tempting.

But while his experience couldn’t be questioned as a 118-Test veteran, Ashley-Cooper wasn’t ready for the pipe and slippers. In the mind of the keen cricket fan, his Test innings was still 'not out'. 

“I just knew in me at the time: 'I am not done’, Ashley-Cooper said. 

"I have always played the game with a chip on my shoulder and it never went away. It certainly didn’t go away after the final of the last World Cup.

"I have played over 100 Tests for the Wallabies and mate, I haven't achieved anything significant in that jersey. And that’s shit.

"That still fuels the fire. It pisses me off. Still does. So I had that, I had that feeling, that I was holding on to."

In February 2017, as he mulled his next move, Ashley-Cooper told an Australian newspaper he still harboured an ambition to play at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. His fourth. No-one paid much notice. Sure mate, no worries.

Adam Ashley-Cooper will miss three weeks. Photo: AFPHe hadn’t quite worked out the how of another World Cup but Ashley-Cooper opted to make a move to Japan in the meantime. He would play two seasons for Kobelco Steelers. 

"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,” Ashley-Cooper said.

An inner voice?

"Not a voice. Maybe a screw loose,” Ashley-Cooper laughs.

“But yeah so I set this goal out 18 months ago, and I threw it out there too.”

On Friday, Ashley-Cooper stood inside Qantas Hangar 96; a cavernous maintenance shed used to fix planes and host the occasional sporting launch or welcome home.

As had happened in the same spot in 2011 and 2015, Ashley-Cooper had just been named in the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad; a deceptively compressed group of 31 Aussie rugby players.

It was the fourth time Ashley-Cooper had been named in such a 31 - a milestone that equalled George Gregan’s Australian record for most World Cups. 

"It’s hard to pat yourself on the back but I think I am allowed to say I am proud of what I have achieved. I am really proud,” he said. 

"I am proud to be Australian. I am proud to represent my country and I am proud to be going to another World Cup."

The selection of Ashley-Cooper has, in the absence of major shocks elsewhere and the need of some to be permanently angry, drawn a fair chunk of the squad’s social media critique.

At 35 years old, what can Ashley-Cooper possibly offer that a younger man couldn’t?

The answers aren’t overly complex. Unmatched experience is up there; a steady, been-there-done-that hand in a squad containing 18 first-time World Cuppers.

Versatility too - Ashley-Cooper has played every position for the Wallabies in Test rugby bar no.9 and no.10 - and then there’s a proven track record in tournament footy. It’s easy to forget Ashley-Cooper scored a hat-trick in the 2015 World Cup semi-final.

But above all of those things, perhaps, is what drove Ashley-Cooper to be in the hangar at all.

Halfway through his Japanese stint, and with that fadeaway so easily accessible, Ashley-Cooper began speaking to Australian rugby types.

He wanted to come back and give that fourth World Cup a crack. And, even though he could have used it, not by the 11th-hour parachute provision of the Giteau Law. 

Ashley-Cooper ended up signing to play for his old team NSW in Super Rugby. Back in the thick of the southern hemisphere’s toughest competition. If a fourth World Cup was to come, he’d earn it.

Adam Ashley-Cooper is excited for a trip across the ditch. Photo: Getty ImagesSimple question. Why? Why the return? Why all the hard yards and suffering when slippers were on offer?

"Maybe you’d have to cut me open, to explain it,” Ashley-Cooper said. 

“I don’t know. I am grateful for that drive that I have. Maybe it is not a drive. 

"Maybe it is just a love and a passion for playing the game. Maybe that’s what it is. 

"Even though there are some really dark days and some tough days and I question myself about what I am doing. At the end of the day I love what I do. And I get to do it for my country.

"It is not that hard a decision to make is it?"

Fifteen seasons after he made his Test debut, Ashley-Cooper laughs when he sees the young man who first pulled on a Wallabies jersey in 2005 and then went to France in 2007 for his first crack at bringing back Bill.

"Bright-eyed young kid, fat-faced, mo-hawk mullet - now I have a few greys, as you can see,” Ashley-Cooper said.

"I would like to think I am still the same guy, the same person. But I know I am also different because of the experiences, and what the game has done for me. 

"I have created some great memories along the way and I feel the game has built me into who I am today. 

"I am grateful for that. But I am also excited about because it allows me to be in this position and to be able contribute in a way no-one else can, maybe. 

"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."

Cheika’s “favouritism” for Ashley-Cooper is a favourite trope of the angry Facebook commenters, and while there is truth to the relationship being strong, it’s the wrong word.

It’s faith, not favouritism.

"I was reading something today, I got 80 minutes against Italy last year and I had 15 minutes against New Zealand and that’s it. But I have trained every single day and I have trained bloody hard,” Ashley-Cooper said. 

Sources say Ashley-Cooper’s work ethic on the training paddock is so high, it sets the bar for players a decade younger and more.

Done deliberately?

"Shit yeah. If you have the opportunity to win a Rugby World Cup, what aren’t you going to do?” Ashley-Cooper says.

"It’s pretty simple. At the end of the day, what aren’t you going to do? It’s a great motivator.  

"My mindset has been since I started this, I want to win a Rugby World Cup. I want the Wallabies to win a Rugby World Cup.

"So … let’s get out of bed. Let’s go get it."