Kicking goals: Cooper gets his shot at Australian passport

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Quade Cooper walked out of the gym in the wake of his man-of-the-match performance in Australia’s upset rugby win over South Africa and discovered hundreds of new messages on his phone with another wave of congratulations.

After four failed attempts, it looks like he might finally get his Australian passport.

The 33-year-old Cooper kicked eight goals from eight attempts on Sunday night in his first test start since 2017, including the long-range clincher after the full-time siren against the World Cup champions, to guide Australia to its first win this season in the Rugby Championship.

He was in the gym working out with the Wallabies squad on Tuesday when Alex Hawke, Australia’s minister for immigration, announced increased flexibility to “streamline the pathway to citizenship for some of our most talented prospective Australians.”

“Exceptional people must not be prevented from becoming Australians because of the unique demands of the very work they do that makes them exceptional," Hawke said.

The New Zealand-born Cooper has lived in Australia since he was 13 and played 71 tests for his adopted home, including World Cups.

He qualified to do that on residency grounds. Yet when he decided to apply formally for citizenship, he realized the strict criteria made it extremely difficult for professional athletes who compete outside of Australia.

Cooper was playing for a club in Japan but, with Australia's borders closed to almost all non-citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, he wanted more certainty about being able to return to Brisbane to see family. After another rejection in July, he went public on social media.

He got some high-profile support, with American-born Kristina Keneally, a former premier of Australia's most populous state New South Wales and now a federal senator, supporting his cause.

“First and foremost, I’d like to give my thanks to Senator Keneally and her office for going into bat for me,” Cooper said. "And . . . the Australian public, and the media, put a lot of pressure on the government to look at not only my case but a lot of people who’re in the same position.

"It’s not over the line, but great to see the rule has been amended to make it a little easier for us."

Cooper has had a hot-and-cold relationship with Australia's rugby selectors during his career. He returned to the extended squad under new coach Dave Rennie this season and initially worked with younger inside backs in a mentoring role while continuing his fitness work and pushing for a comeback in the No. 10 jersey. Injuries and form issues in the flyhalf position and three consecutive losses to the New Zealand All Blacks eventually gave Rennie little choice but to give Cooper another chance.

It worked perfectly, with Cooper playing a near flawless game with his astute tactical kicking and error-free passing game and 100% place kicking accuracy. Obviously, it wasn't just the team's support staff and 15,000 or so fans at the stadium on the Gold Coast who noticed.

Cooper, wearing a gold chain with the No. 10 dangling on his neck as he spoke at a news conference on Tuesday, thanked his teammates and coaches for helping put him back into the international spotlight.

“Without playing that game, it may not have been able to come to fruition,” Cooper said of the changes to the immigration rules. “There would be countless others who’ve seen the news today and seen that little glimmer of hope.”

Cooper is firmly in line to retain his place for Saturday's test against South Africa in Brisbane. The Wallabies will follow that with back-to-back tests against Argentina as part of a condensed Rugby Championship that involves doubleheaders on four consecutive weekends in Queensland home state.

Cooper said his time out of international rugby had given him an enhanced outlook on life.

“Perspective is everything," he said. “For us as football players, whether your win or lose, understanding that the game of life is the one that we really want to win.

“There’s more to being Australian than just a piece of paper . . . (but) it’ll be a cherry on top.” ___

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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