Quade Cooper and Will Genia: We're not done making memories

Even in the modern era of professional rugby, few could have dreamed up this turn of events.

Thirteen years after they were little more than Queensland Reds gear stewards, Will Genia and Quade Cooper have once again settled alongside each other in a halves partnership Melbourne Rebels hope will carry the club to its first Super Rugby finals campaign.

And after compiling a highlights package that includes match-winning tries, audacious cross-field kicks and no-look passes, the duo are adamant the archive isn't quite ready to gather dust. As the veterans in a youthful Rebels squad brimming with talent, there are more memories to be made.

"Yeah, it is a little bit weird because for such a long time, myself and Willy here, were the youngest," Cooper told ESPN in the build-up to the Rebels' season opener. "We started off at the Reds in 2006 in a tour to Japan, and we were basically the kids there loading the bus, grabbing everyone's bags; when we get to the destination, unloading the bus; things like that, little things that the young guys do. And then now you get here and you're one of the older guys, and it's one of those weird things, it all happens so quickly.

"But it only seems like yesterday we were those guys; although some of the time you look around and your age may [suggest] that you're a bit older, but I certainly don't feel it. And I think that's subject to the environment you're in as well, being around a lot these young guys who are full of energy, who are wanting to be the best; that just makes you feel as young as you can."

Cooper's trials over the past 12 months are well known. Having virtually been cast aside by Reds coach Brad Thorn during the 2018 preseason, he returned to Souths Rugby Club in Brisbane Premier Rugby and then finished the year out with Brisbane City in the National Rugby Championship.

Watching on during his first season in Melbourne, Genia continued to check-in on his close mate, both from a welfare perspective and to gauge his interest in heading south. Once the finer points of a club-swap were thrashed out, the Rebels had their man and Genia his trusted teammate - a player with whom he shares an almost otherworldly understanding.

"Yeah, they're two peas in a pod those two," Rebels coach Dave Wessels says. "They've obviously played a lot of rugby together and have a good understanding and a good respect for each other. I remember having coached against them for a couple of seasons and they can cause some real problems when they get going, so we're really hopeful that they can deliver that [here]."

The Reds' title charge of 2011 shines brightest in the careers of both Genia and Cooper. Under then-coach Ewen McKenzie, Queensland gradually laid the building blocks of a team capable of competing with the best, playing a brand of rugby that had the club flourishing to the point it was out-performing NRL rivals Brisbane Broncos for home attendances.

But nine years on, two World Cup campaigns and an overseas stint behind them, the duo understand no two teams are ever the same and they must stitch their own individual tapestry into the greater framework of the Rebels squad.

That means bringing the best out of a playing group that includes some rising stars of Australian rugby in Jack Maddocks, Isi Naisarani, Jordan Uelese and Campbell Magnay among a host of other established Wallabies.

"To be honest, it's not about trying to recreate [the Reds magic] - what happened in 2011 was the culmination of a couple of years," Genia told ESPN. "2010 was a year where we built; it's similar to here in a weird sense as we just missed out on the finals, we finished fifth, and then we just continued that momentum and rolled on into 2011.

"So I think it's like what Quadey is saying - I get so much enjoyment of seeing the younger guys ... realise their potential. A lot of the time you'll have guys at a club who are young, they probably play within themselves, stay within themselves; don't express themselves off the field or on the field. But because the environment is so conducive to guys wanting to be the best that they can be, it's awesome seeing the young guys express themselves. And if we can thrive off that energy, that enthusiasm, yeah, we can go all the way."

While 2011 ended in a heart-breaking knee injury, it was also the year when Cooper was given the freedom to express himself, particularly during Super Rugby. Vision of Cooper skipping down the sideline in beating four Blues defenders in the 2011 semifinal or finding Digby Ioane off his shoulder, while looking in the exact opposite direction, made Reds games must-watch rugby.

Does he have the freedom to play his natural game at the Rebels then?

"I feel this set-up, this environment, is very much suited to the way that we want to play," Cooper said when that question was put to him a week out from Round 1. "We want to play a great expansive game of football, a brand of football that the city of Melbourne will enjoy to watch, the people around Australia hopefully will enjoy watching as well, but one for us that we believe will be successful.

"By no means are we saying that we're going to go out there and win the competition, but we feel like we're on the right track to be able to produce some good football and I think that when you do that, you've just got to start chipping away.

"And in terms of the season, it's not a sprint, you've got to chip away ... you've got to earn everything. And I think that we've earned a lot throughout this preseason, that's the first stepping stone, so going into Round 1 we're [hoping] to continue to build on that. I'm not saying we're going to blow anyone out of the water, by no means; but we're very confident in what we're trying to achieve and feel this club is on the right track."

Cooper's last Test for the Wallabies came midway through 2017, with Australia coach Michael Cheika last year insisting the 30-year-old playmaker needed to be playing Super Rugby to be considered for national selection.

The move to Melbourne has already resulted in Cooper being invited to a Wallabies camp in Sydney early in the New Year. But he insists a third World Cup isn't serving as a motivator, although he is acutely aware of the recent changes to the Wallabies coaching setup that may be to his advantage.

"It [the World Cup] is not something that I'm saying is the be-all and end-all," Cooper says. "What's motivating me is that we've got a big season here, what's motivating me is watching these guys get better; being a part of the club that's trying to get better. Myself, I'm trying to get better. And if that results in a World Cup, then so be it.

"But, mate, I sat a season out last year and played club football, so if you think about the things for me, what's motivating me, is just every day. So if I don't play in that World Cup, that's someone else's decision and there's actually now a panel in place to pick who goes to the World Cup. So I'll focus on doing my job here, and let Scott Johnson and those blokes think about it."

From a first meeting as teenagers when Genia says Cooper sported "Jheri curls", few could envisaged the duo would end up playing in Melbourne more than a decade later. The Rebels themselves weren't even in existence when they began their professional rugby careers.

But as they prepare for what will be in all likelihood be their final domestic season as teammates, the message is clear: We're not done making memories.

"Where to start? Well the obvious one is when he scored that try in the final in 2011 against the Crusaders," Cooper said when asked to recall his favourite Genia memory. "So for me, that was basically the play that secured that title for us and there's just never-ending memories for that.

"But we always speak about the first memory when we played against each other, as young kids at our small ground in Brisbane, at Wests Rugby Club, so that's a great memory. Some of the memories of us as schoolboys, some of the things he did as a young schoolboy, and then even our first game for the Reds when we both scored on debut; it was my starting debut and it was his second game and we both scored tries. So those are just some of the memories that stand out, and we look forward to making many more, and I think that's a big thing for us."

Genia agrees.

"It's like what he said, there's just so many [memories]. When I first met him he was a skinny kid with, like, Jheri curls down at Wests [who] tore us apart. I think we'd beaten Easts the week before, two weeks before, and they put 50 on us when he was playing. But to be honest, it's just the journey that we've been through, it's crazy to be here now.

"I'm 31 and he's 30, we started when we were 18 years old. And to still be here, to still be at this level, playing consistently, playing well, and to be doing it together again, it's incredible. And it's one of the reasons I'm just really excited for the season, is that we have the chance to play together again but also try to make more memories, to make better memories. That's what I'm really looking forward to."