Quade Cooper has opened up on why he kneed Richie McCaw in the head, what went in to his costly "toxic" call over the Wallabies and why he thinks Michael Cheika gave him the cold shoulder this year.
The 70-Test playmaker, who has just started his first season in Japan's second division rugby competition with the Kintetsu Liners, sat down with childhood friend and former NRL player Isaac John for an epic debrief on the twists and turns his rugby career and life have taken.
He admitted for the first time to deliberately kneeing the "untouchable" All Blacks captain in the lead-up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup and said he was unprepared for what followed, as an entire nation - the country in which he grew up - turned on him.
"I look back at it now and I wasn't ready for it," Cooper, 31, told John's podcast The Ice Project.
"I had the expectation of 2011 (when the Reds won the Super Rugby title) of playing good football but now I had the pressure of all these guys hating me as well, and a whole country, not just the rugby public. I couldn't go anywhere. I was on the team bus and there were signs 'I hope you break your leg, I hope you die in this game'.
"If I had my time again, [because] I know how to handle it now, I'd just say, 'Yeah I did it, so what?'. Not 'So what?', but 'It's part of footy, it was a bad play but I did it', so what could people say?".
Cooper revealed he approached McCaw years later to own up to the act.
"A few years later I've seen Richie in the airport and I went up to him and said, 'Sorry about that'," he said.
"It's not that he didn't care or he did care but, when I said sorry to him, I confronted it and said, 'I really looked up to you as a kid, you were my idol, everyone in New Zealand loves you and I loved you, so when I played against you it was just emotion, passion took over, you were playing dirty on me and I kneed you.
"He's one of the best at [dirty play]."
Cooper opened up on the dressing room tensions between the old and new Wallabies guard that boiled over in 2012, after the Wallabies bowed out of the 2011 World Cup in the semi-finals and Cooper suffered an ACL (knee) injury in the bronze medal match against Wales.
"It was a battle of power really, the locker room was really unsettled," he said.
"There was always disagreements, it was a nightmare, and that's when I said the environment was toxic, because I didn't like how it was making me feel because everyone was just arguing."
The tensions came to the surface, Cooper claimed, after he was forced to play injured against Argentina in the Rugby Championship. He helped steer the team to a 23-19 fight back win but felt let down when coach Robbie Deans admitted he would have benched his No.10 if he'd had that option.
"I hurt my knee in one of the training sessions and told the management I had a bit of floating cartilege. I said, 'I don't know if I can play', they said, 'No you're sweet, you can get surgery next week in the week off, this is the last week and we need to win it'," Cooper said.
"I went into the game and I couldn't really kick because every time I kicked that bit of cartilege would get stuck in my joint. Willy [Genia], off the kick-off, threw the ball to me, I hesitated to kick and it and ended up getting charged down.
"We won the game and in the media [conference, post-match] Robbie said to the media, 'If we had a reserve to bring on' - all our boys got injured - 'I would have hooked Quade'.
"So we won the game, I'd just played through an injury he knew about, so I felt really let down and embarrassed.
"I took that, and I ended up saying,' F--- you, you've just thrown me out to dry', I said, 'You're a s--- coach'. Not in those words but I basically said that. We ended up getting in a bit of an argument and that's when I got fined from the ARU, like $70,000 or something (Cooper was fined a total of $60,000, $20,000 of which was suspended)."
Cooper made the 2015 World Cup squad under Michael Cheika and joined Toulon for a season in 2016, before returning to the Reds at Ballymore.
Things turned frosty when Brad Thorn, All Blacks and Broncos legend, was elevated to head coach ahead of the 2018 season.
"I was just on too much money. Thorny had just took over as coach and he wanted the guys that he wanted. But you're not able to do that when he's paying me," he said. "The easiest way for them was to force me out."
The manner in which that happened appeared to hurt Cooper, but he revealed that he was able to flip his perspective with the help of good friend Sonny Bill Williams and manager Khoder Nasser.
"I felt really lost because I thought what do I do now? Is this the end of my career?" he said.
"I sat down with Khoder, Sonny, they said, 'It's not actually a bad situation'. I have to strip it back, understand it, instead of just letting your ego take over.
"That's what we were able to pick them up on. They thought my ego would take over and I'd say I'm too good to be playing club football, you can't treat me like this, and bit back."
The stand-off was lapped up by fans and commentators, as Cooper played in the Brisbane club comp with Wests while he was still being paid by Queensland and Rugby Australia.
He eventually signed a deal with the Rebels, who picked up him up at a bargain price. Cooper and Will Genia lit up the first half of Super Rugby this year before the Rebels' campaign derailed. He missed World Cup selection and signed with Kintetsu.
Cooper said he wasn't sure where his relationship with Cheika broke down but he felt the then-Wallabies coach did not enjoy being challenged.
"I know for a fact that I'll speak my mind and maybe for him, if I wasn't saying yes in agreeance with him, then I was a bad team guy from his perspective," Cooper said.
"There were a lot of things going on in that locker room that weren't running smoothly and when we'd have a team meeting they'd say, 'Does anyone have a different point of view?' and I'd say, 'Yeah I see it this way' and he'd get really offended by that.
"I'm not sure what it's from but he's definitely successful off [the field] and that's why he wanted to do it a certain way. Not that that's right or wrong, but we were seeing it as players, there were certain things that were happening that we couldn't put up with so when we'd speak up about it...''
Cooper said he worked hard on the points Cheika raised with him but knew it was for nought.
"We had a conversation on the phone about selection and I just said, 'Mate, the things you're telling me to go work on, I'm doing those things, so if you're just not going to pick me, you just don't like the way I play, then that's fine, tell me that and be up front," Cooper said.
"So you're not just going, 'Go work on your passing'. I know I'm the best passer in the team. You want me to go work on my kicking? I'll working on my kicking. But don't feed me bulls---. I said that to him on the phone, and I remember he got the s---- with that, we ended up having a big argument.
"Same thing with [back rower] Scott Higginbotham, had the same conversations. Two guys never to play with him again."
On what happened after the Reds won the title
"We started winning and we just thought we were going to win everything. Even saying things, I started to realise when you've got a little bit of power, you think, 'I'm not going to get pushed around anymore'. 'When I'm feeling a certain way I'm going to say it', and when I started to do that, I started getting some backlash. You've got fans and people that hate you, but when you start speaking out, that's magnified again. That Richie McCaw stuff, that just turned a whole nation against me."
On Richie McCaw
(Question) Did you knee him in the head on purpose? "Yeah. The thing is, the stuff that happens on a footy field, that's so small. I've been punched in the head, kneed in the head, all that stuff, but it was who you did it to. Already, I was a Kiwi boy playing for Australia, so they [were] already hating on me to start with and then I go and knee the captain of the All Blacks, untouchable, in the head. That's even worse.
"I walked into New Zealand for the World Cup and I've never been involved in anything like it. I couldn't walk (anywhere), I couldn't go anywhere. I was on the team bus and there were signs 'I hope you break your leg, I hope you die in this game'. Things like that. I went from being well known to the most well known and the most hated. It was crazy.
On his ACL injury at the 2011 World Cup
"I didn't [handle it] and that was the thing, I had no help. I was basically ... I had no protection from the ARU, from the coaches, no one came out and protected me, except for my nanna.
"I was a little bit lost, but the mental aspect is tough. To come back to that same level ... and I did everything I could to get back there but my first season ... (I was brought back too early).
"I was way off. I was limping around on one leg, my leg was like a toothpick, there was no muscle on it so there's no control on it, and I had no confidence. I didn't step off it for two years. Now I've got no issues with it but going back then I shouldn't have been playing."
On the man in the mirror
"I was trying my hardest to lie to myself (about being fit). Same with the Richie, I was trying so hard to block it out. People say 'do you just block it out, the boos and things like that' and you say 'yeah I can't even hear it'. F*cken oath you can hear it. When you're on the field, that stuff is so clear, people don't realise it. If someone yells out something in the crowd, they might be in row 108 and you hear it dead clear. 'Quade you're a f*ckwhit, I hope you die'.
On the 'toxic' Wallabies in 2012
"The team was pretty much divided 50/50 between al the young guys and all the old guys, so the locker room was pretty up and down. You think about myself, Kurtley [Beale], [James] O'Connor, [David] Pocock, [Will] Genia, all starters, all 21, 22, and then you had the older guys. A lot of these guys were not playing or on the bench, or they were still playing and they wanted the say, but the majority of the guys were our age and we'd come through winning the comp.
"It was a battle of power really, the locker room was really unsettled. There was always disagreements, it was a nightmare, and that's when I said the environment was toxic, because I didn't like how it was making me feel because everyone was just arguing.
"I hurt my knee in one of the training sessions and I told the management beforehand I had a bit of floating cartilege. I said, 'I don't know if I can play', they said, 'No you're sweet, you can get surgery next week in the week off, this is the last game and we need to win it. I went into the game and I couldn't really kick becuase every time I kicked that bit of cartilege would get stuck in my joint.
"Willy [Genia], off the kick off threw the ball to me, I hesitated to kick and it and ended up getting charged down. At the end of the game, we won the game, and in the media announcement Robbie said to the media 'If we had a reserve to bring on (all our boys got injured), I would have hooked Quade.
"So we won the game, I'd just played through an injury he knew about, so I felt really let down and embarrassed, him saying that to the media. I took that, and I ended up saying f*ck you, you've just thrown me out to dry, I said 'you're a shit coach'. Not in those words but I basically said that. We ended up getting in a bit of an argument and that's when I got fined from the ARU, like $70,000 or something."
On being told the Reds didn't want him
"I was just on too much money. Thorny had just took over as coach and he wanted the guys that he wanted. But you're not able to do that when he's paying me. The easiest way for them was to force me out.
"It was all weird bro. What [Thorn's] achieved on the field, he's achieved everything you can. But the thing for me was I got a message - I'd just done three days of pre-season training camp, I'd been flogged for three days, I get a message on our day off at 9.30/10 at night from our team manager: 'Quade you don't have to do the promo tomorrow', you don't have to do the training in the morning, just come in for the meeting this afternoon'.
"I thought 'that's a bit weird, why don't I have to do that stuff'. I was thinking 'maybe they're looking after me, I'm getting a bit old'. Came in there, I had a weird feeling, I rung Khoder and said 'I don't have a good feeling about this, something happened to one of the other boys two days ago and maybe I'm on the same chopping block'. Off the back of that, he said, 'Whatever they say to you, go in there with your head high, say sweet, thank them and walk out'.
"I sat down and the conversation started weird. I was me, Thorny and the GM (general manager). The way they were speaking to me was really speaking down to me. They said, 'Quade you're the fifth choice flyhalf'. I giggled because I thought 'what you're saying has no merit now, you're taking the piss'. I'd understand if you said you'd prefer this guy over me, but saying I'm the fifth - so there's two guys here better than me and two guys in club footy better than me - that's just trying to make me pissed off. I said 'okay, I understand that's your opinion, I appreciate it, I got up, shook their hands and left'.
On club rugby
"It wasn't very hard to adjust to. There were more eyes on me because of what I was doing, I was sort of making a stand. It had happened to two younger guys beore me but no one heard about that beause they weren't really a name.
"When I went back ... [I said to myself] If I go back to club football and I'm not the best on the field every game then this backs up what just happened to me. So this is a challenge for me to be able to stay in good shape and be the best on field athletically, physically, in rugby smarts."