The Quade Cooper Olympic experiment has its green light and will lift off in a fortnight in Sydney after his big-spending French club, Toulon, finally bowed to Australian Rugby Union wishes.
The mercurial Wallabies showman has just three tournaments, starting with the inaugural Sydney 7s on February 6-7, to learn on the run and prove he deserves to pilot Australia’s sevens team at the Rio Games.
Cooper will also feature for the Thunderbolts in the Paris and London legs of the 10-round world series in May but the ARU were insistent on a home debut where he’ll be the headline attraction at a packed Allianz Stadium, where only 2500 tickets remain on sale.
After drawn-out negotiations over several months, Toulon – the France Top 14 and European Cup champions – only this week relented to release the 58-Test five-eighth for a two-week return to Australia.
It will see him join forces with fellow Wallabies World Cup back Henry Speight and line up against close friend Sonny Bill Williams who is cutting his sevens teeth for New Zealand.
Despite his star power and sublime attacking skills, Cooper knows he has a difficult task to make the grade in the high-energy, gut-busting seven-a-side game he last played nine years ago as an 18-year-old.
To his credit, the former Queensland Red acknowledges he can’t just waltz into a medal-contending team that has moulded combinations over the past three years, and must earn the respect of new teammates.
“It’s going to be an obvious challenge,” he told AAP from Toulon.
“There’s a lot of unknowns. Not ever playing sevens at this level is a big unknown.
“I’m coming in blind and for me all I’m expecting is that it’s going to be very hard, very challenging, and I want to come home and earn the respect of the guys … as well as the coaches and the supporters.”
“At this stage I’m just excited at the opportunity.”
Thunderbolts captain Ed Jenkins and several senior players have welcomed big-name Wallabies trying their luck but doubted whether three tournaments of experience would be enough to book an Olympics berth.
Former long-time national coach Michael O’Connor believes Cooper has the playmaking ability to take the world No.5-ranked team to a new level and has backed him to adapt quickly.
Newly-appointed coach Andy Friend also said “he brings with him an X-factor that I feel could add an extra dimension to our squad”.
A long time fan of sevens, Cooper said the amount of space in attacking against seven men was “mouth watering”.
He is the third Wallaby to sign with the Thunderbolts, following Speight and Nick Cummins, and, if selected for Rio, will rejoin the sevens program following the Top 14 play-offs in June for a two-month Olympic build-up.
The 27-year-old has endured a rocky start to his first season away from the Reds, with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal saying he had not delivered to expectations as a replacement for Jonny Wilkinson.
Cooper admitted he was still adjusting to northern hemisphere rugby but it would be “silly” to get offended by Boudjellal’s criticism.
“We’re still winning games and the club is still in a healthy position,” he said.