Life in Japan: How Will Genia & Quade Cooper found a 'sweet spot'

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Having played together for Queensland Reds, Melbourne Rebels and the Wallabies, Will Genia and Quade Cooper have settled into yet another club partnership - and it may just be their most comfortable yet.

The halves duo has, for the last couple of seasons, reformed their combination at Kintetsu Liners in the Japanese second division and will next weekend commence the playoff tournament they hope will lead to some form of silverware.

But the experience in Japan has also been about personal growth and gaining a far more rounded understanding of the rugby world, which they both agree is ripe for change - and should have Japan as much at the forefront as any other region in the world.

They've also been keeping an eye on the Reds and see some similarities with their historic 2011 Super Rugby title triumph when Queensland played before full houses at Suncorp Stadium, largely due to the exciting brand of rugby Brad Thorn's side is increasingly starting to deliver this season, too.

"It's hard to put comparisons on it because obviously they're only playing NSW, Melbourne, [the Brumbies] and the Force [whereas] 10 years ago when we were week in, week out, playing the New Zealand and South African teams and the Australian teams, but it's been great to watch," Cooper told a Zoom call on Thursday evening.

"Me and Willy were sitting round talking about it the other night with the style of football that they're playing, it's a really enjoyable football to watch. And the players, we grew up with a lot of those players, and to see them coming into their own as men, as great footballers; a lot of them have always had that talent and now they're in their mid to late 20s where they're starting to hit their primes and become the players that we always thought they would be.

"And when you mix that in with a guy like Rabs [James O'Connor] and a few other old heads there, they're really making them [the Reds] very much a rugby powerhouse again."

Cooper's best year in Australian rugby was undoubtedly that 2011 season when he routinely bamboozled opposition defences with an array of brilliant, often wildly outlandish, attacking skills that brought fans to their feet.

But later that year he was declared public enemy No. 1 in New Zealand during the World Cup, a miserable few weeks ending in awful fashion when he tore his ACL in the third placed playoff against Wales.

It is fair to say that he has never quite recaptured that Super Rugby form from 2011.

But a premature end to last year's Japanese season and then the delayed start to the 2021 rugby calendar afforded him the opportunity to really reflect on his career and to make some changes around the way he had approached the game.

His carnivore diet - which has been challenging to maintain in Japan and on which Genia lasted little more than a week -- was revealed midway through 2020, but Cooper has since dug further into his preparations in a bid to not only stay injury free, but also play consistently good rugby

"We spoke about injuries and things like that, and both me and Will had had knee injuries earlier in our career, and during that COVID period I sort of had to start to think that as you're getting older; I'm sick of injuries, for one...but I took some time to think about how I wanted to approach things," Cooper explained.

"And through that I realised that when I stripped everything back that my output, what I was putting out onto the training paddock and the games, it was at a level that was well below what I could max out at.

"And you go through preseasons and you get about eight to 12 weeks to train, and we think that in that 8 to 12 weeks you'll hear everybody in preseason, at the end of preseason, saying 'yeah, this is the best I've ever felt'. And of course it's the best you've ever felt because you've put in work for 12 weeks, but 12 weeks is not enough to make huge changes; you'll make some surface level changes, to the naked eye you'll see changes to the body, but it's just not sustainable.

"So being fortunate to have that eight to nine months off, where I was training at a level above everything that I had done throughout my career throughout that whole period, so when we got here [Japan] we were already 20/30 percent above what we'd been putting out for the last 10 years and that became our normal, that became our every day.

"And credit to Willy as well, we've been training at a pretty hard level and there's been days where you're tired, you're sore, you kind of don't want to do it, but you realise that this is just our normal now.

"This is a level that we're able to just wake up, turn up to training and your output is 20 to 30 percent more than it has been in the past. So I feel great, it doesn't mean that we're never going to get injured or anything like that, it just gives us the best possible opportunity to not get injured but also play great football and put our teams in a position to advance throughout the season."

Genia is also physically and mentally refreshed.

While his Test career extended through to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Genia was not the same player who for a long time was level-pegging with All Blacks No. 9 Aaron Smith as the best No. 9 on the planet.

He says the switch to Japan has reinvigorated his mindset and challenged him to continually improve when perhaps he might have been happy easing towards retirement.

The Quade Cooper gym regiment is also having an effect.

"It's been refreshing and reinvigorating, obviously, as Quade said, having about eight months off. And that tends to be the case over here you have a lot of time off, whether it's weeks off in between games and longer breaks and things like that, but I think the shift for me has been the mindset to continue to grow and get better," Genia explained.

"Along the way in your career you sort of get to certain points when you plateau and you think I just need to maintain, whereas coming over here I've switched back to when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, where you think: how can I get better? I want to get more improvements in the gym or I want to get more improvements out on the field through skill development.

"But the nature of the seasons; if you think about Super Rugby and then you flow straight into Test rugby, you don't really have time to work on your skills and develop because it's all about the game, the game plan, the tactics, all that sort of stuff; whereas we actually have time here to work on our bodies, to work on our skills, to continue to develop.

"And I feel like I'm in that sweet spot where your mind and your body meet at the perfect time where I feel that I'm the best that I've been because of that; I've got so much experience and understanding about the game now, coupled with the fact that my body feels in good shape.

"So it's been awesome for me, I feel like I'm in really good nick, I'm really enjoying it and like I said, body by Quade Cooper has really been helping a lot too."

Genia and Cooper agree the scope for growth in Japanese rugby is huge.

This year alone the Top League has welcomed the likes of Beauden Barrett and Michael Hooper, to go with guys who were there the year before like Brodie Retallick and Samu Kerevi, as well as many other quality former Super Rugby players like Matt Todd and Sean McMahon.

The influx of quality internationals has helped raise the level of the local Japanese players and the standard of play across both competitions, generating discussions of how the region might be connected with Super Rugby or - as Cooper sees it - Super Rugby is connected with Japan.

"There is an abundance of talent here. Obviously we're in the second division but you also watch the Top League and there is such an abundance of high-quality players here," Genia said.

"Japan has to, at some point be incorporated into Super Rugby, just because we're in the same timezone. You've got quality players and if you look at some of the very strong Top league teams, Suntory, Kobe, currently as their rosters sit, they'd be competing with Super Rugby AU teams, no doubt, I have absolutely no doubt of that... and if you look at a more global scale, how good were Japan in the World Cup, they beat Scotland, they beat Ireland and made it all the way to the quarterfinals

"So their players will only benefit from such experiences, and then eventually you'd hope to see the Japanese national team playing more regular games against top-tier nations. And it's just such a huge market, people love their rugby here, the supporters here are so incredibly respectful, passionate, and they absolutely love it. So I think that there is such huge scope to grow the game here."

Cooper pointed to the failure of the Sunwolves - who played in front of great crowds but existed through an uneasy ecosystem with the Japanese clubs and Japan Rugby Football Union - as a reason why perhaps Australian and New Zealand teams should go the other way or at least contest a Champions Cup/Challenge Cup style tournament similar to those that run in Europe.

"I also think that a lot of the time we think about a team from Japan [going to] compete in the Super Rugby, but the competition that is very strong at the moment is the Japanese league," Cooper said.

"So you would, in my mind, be inviting a team from Super Rugby to come over here and join into that because obviously we've tried it the other way round and we put the Sunwolves in and it wasn't the best experience.

"But the fanbase here, as Willy alluded to, is amazing, the strength of the companies [who own the clubs] is amazing, the way that they have set it up with the money that the companies have, everything here seems to be going in the right direction, I feel at some point that has to be taken into consideration. Instead of sending one team from here over [to Super Rugby], let's try it the other way round.

"You might say that the top two teams, how we're going into this Top League playoff system now, you might incorporate two of the Australian teams and two [from] New Zealand, just off the top of my head.

"But I think that in that situation, if you look at the crowds that are in the Super AU games and compare that to the crowds that are at a Top League game; and you look at the New Zealand crowds and compare that to the Top League games; they're doing something very right over here and I think that Australia and New Zealand should look to be a part of that."