By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN his NRL career finished, former Melbourne, Newcastle and Cronulla utility Dustin Cooper believed those who said “play rugby union and see the world, play rugby league and see Batley”.
So he went and played rugby union in Japan.
“But now,” says the Pia Donkeys import, “I’ve played rugby league in more countries than I’ve played rugby (union).”
Welcome to Men Of The World, a series that aims to explore just how diverse the lives really are of the 750,000 or more people who play our game worldwide.
Generally speaking, 99.9 per cent of the rugby league players you read about are fulltime professionals whose lives revolve around training and playing. Some of them are on television, some of them dodge the media. The word “pampered” may or may not apply.
But what about those playing in bare feet a few miles outside Nadi? Or lining up in sub zero temperatures in Prague? Or taking time off work after breaking a leg in a tackle at Mt Isa? What are their lives like and why have they chosen to make rugby league part of it?
Cooper – a centre or stand-off who has migrated into the second row – played 37 first grade games with three NRL clubs between 2003 and 2008.
“I look back on my NRL career as a blessing – it’s what I always wanted to do as a kid,” he reflects from the south of France.
“I didn’t quite achieve what I set out to achieve. A hundred percent, I’d still love to be there. But it’s sort of like a Sliding Doors thing. If I was still there, I wouldn’t be able to experience what I’ve been able to experience.
“I’ve had the privilege and honour to play with some of the best players ever to play the game and to be coached by some of the best coaches ever. At the Storm with Craig Bellamy … a huge influence on my career and on me as a person.
“In Newcastle, I was there when Joey (Andrew Johns) was there. I got Cronulla to and there was Birdman (Greg Bird) and Gal (Paul Gallen) and Brett Kimmorley.
“At the end of the day, if I played one NRL game then I reached my goal.”
So believing the credo that he could see the world through the 15-man game, Cooper headed to Japan and top league club Toyota in 2011.
“I had a contract ready to sign at Mazda, after I left Toyota,” he explains, taking up the story (Japanese rugby union clubs are owned by major corporations).
“And then the tsunami hit after that and that was the reason I didn’t continue in Japan. Obviously the car industry got hit pretty hard with the tsunami and they were looking to cut costs with their foreign players and their rugby team.
“Unfortunately I was one of them, I was left high and dry.”
Cooper returned to our loving embrace in Gladstone, central Queensland, playing socially. “I got the opportunity to play rugby (union) again, in France,” he says. “I came over here.
“One weekend we had a week off and I came down to Perpignan to visit some friends who I’d played with at the Sharks, we got chatting, and they said ‘you should come down and play for us’.
“I grabbed it. Three years out of league, the biggest thing I missed was the contact. With rugby, you get tackled and you go into a maul or you go into a ruck and you’re getting hammered. There’re skills you have to pick up on the way…
“In league, it’s one-on-one. From there, it snowballed. I was playing good footy and I loved it.”
Like Dane Campbell, the former Newcastle player who helped start rugby league in Jamaica and Vanuatu, Cooper is nothing if not a self-starter. Maybe a little restless, too…
“I got talking to a few of the other (Australian) boys who have been here for a while, like Tony Duggan and Jye Mullane … and we were saying ‘did you know the American league is run over the French off-season?” he says.
“I just put out a blanket email and offered our services. In the end, they didn’t come with me but I ended up going to Boston. It was an awesome experience, my first coaching gig, and I met my beautiful girlfriend there too.
“You had to teach basic skills without treating them like kids, you had to teach them as adults.”
Dustin isn’t across the details of the split in the American game but saw enough there to know one thing. “For the game to move forward, there needs to be reconciliation, the two comps have to come together,” he says.
“There’s always ongoing discussions. Leading into a World Cup year as well, the national team has to have access to the best players it can possibly have.
“I’m hoping and so is everyone else that has to do with rugby league in America that there will be reconciliation between the two comps.”
In the meantime, Cooper and his girlfriend, an international DJ called Liz Ladoux, have moved back to France together. They live near Pia and on the day that we spoke, they were about to take French lessons.
Being multi-lingual is not common in Rugby League and he hopes he can get a job out in the game when he eventually retires. “I’d like to get into the coaching thing, hopefully.
“I want nothing more than for the game to develop in America and I’d love to be part of that.”
But Cooper hopes players reading this story realise they can see more than Batley with rugby league – and that rewarding experiences, travel and making a real contribution to the expansion of the game go hand in hand.
“I wanted to play NRL, I wanted to play professional rugby league and once I finished, I had the goal that I wanted to go out and make the most of the opportunities I’d been given,” he concludes.
“I wasn’ t the most skilful player but I’ve been able to use football – both codes – to see the world.
“… the world is a diverse place and I just want to be a part of it and experience every bit of it until my last breath.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD