Australian bad boys look to clean up act in World Cup year
By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Forget high-minded talk of "people and culture", the old school mantra of "boys will be boys" is alive and kicking in Australian Super Rugby where three problematic former Wallabies are set to reboot their careers at new teams.
With colourful rap-sheets of off-field indiscretions, Quade Cooper, Karmichael Hunt and James Slipper all spent time in the wilderness last year, frozen out at the Queensland Reds by firebrand coach Brad Thorn.
But all three have found more accommodating homes, benefiting from Australian rugby's seemingly boundless capacity for forgiveness.
Two off-field drug charges might be enough for most employers to think twice about the sanctity of their workplaces, but not the New South Wales Waratahs.
The Sydney-based side picked up former Wallabies midfielder Hunt on a one-year deal and have named him to start at inside centre for Saturday's season-opener against New Zealand's Wellington Hurricanes.
The former rugby league international's career seemed over after he was arrested on a drug possession charge for the second time in three years while at the Reds, so the 32-year-old was grateful for the lifeline.
Penance did not come easy, however. Hunt had to convince the Waratahs he was a changed man and has spent time living in the garage of Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson, local media reported.
"When you're full of grog (alcohol), the decisions are not crystal clear, you can get caught in compromised positions," he told local radio.
"It’s funny how things work out, a year ago I was sitting at home not knowing what was installed for my future.
"But here we are at the start of 2019 and it’s one of the best teams in the competition and I think it’s a really good pat on the back for myself as a person."
Former Wallabies prop Slipper joined Hunt in the Reds' freezer early last season, after the team revealed he had tested positive for cocaine twice in four months.
Slipper was also battling depression following the death of a family member and a serious illness diagnosed in another.
The ACT Brumbies have offered a clean break and he has slotted back into the starting side for their opening match against the Melbourne Rebels, his first Super Rugby game since last May.
"The Brumbies have always had a long history of making players better through their program, so to get a chance to be a part of that is very exciting and something I am looking forward to," Slipper said after he was recruited last year.
Slipper will be on opposing sides to former Wallabies flyhalf Cooper, who will start for the Melbourne Rebels at Canberra Stadium on Friday.
While 70-test Cooper has a long record of disciplinary failures, his exile from the Reds was a more complex matter than those of Slipper and Hunt.
Thorn had essentially made up his mind about his fellow New Zealander, even before taking charge of the team in late-2017.
"I thought Quade last year ... the team struggled, his game management, his attack, his defence," Thorn said in the pre-season last year.
That left Cooper to play club rugby in Brisbane while on an annual salary of over A$600,000 ($427,000), a princely sum by local standards.
The Reds may have hoped Cooper would quit his contract and take up a deal overseas to relieve their financial burden.
But the 30-year-old stayed put, writing cheerful posts on social media with pictures of himself playing to sparse crowds in the local club competition.
The Reds have ended up paying part of his new deal at the Rebels, and Cooper may well end up having the last laugh.
Reunited with Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia in Melbourne, the pair will resume the halves partnership that guided Queensland to their only title in 2011.
As for Hunt and Slipper, Cooper's fresh start coincides with a World Cup year.
The prospect of a place on Michael Cheika's squad in Japan may be the best deterrent to any disciplinary relapses for the trio at their new homes. (Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)