South Australia's Super Cooper marks 50 years in coaching

by Stu Walmsley

Originally published on

 It’s half time, and Sacred Heart are being pummelled by the bigger, more experienced Prince Alfred College in their mid-week South Australian Schools fixture.

The boys trudge to the huddle with heads down, but their coach Barry Cooper has seen all this before.

He knows there’s no chance of them winning this game, and that’s not the objective. The aim is for them to look back on the match believing they’ve achieved something, to have some fun, to see this as a worthwhile way to spend a Wednesday afternoon, and to get them to turn up again next week.

Cooper acknowledges that it’s tough out there, but highlights what the team are doing well, and singles out a couple of individuals who made a great run or tackle.

One diminutive lad in those 80s-style checkered soccer shorts is congratulated for a technically questionable but very effective hit which levelled one of the Prince Alfred props.

“That was fun, wasn’t it?”, says their coach.

A sheepish grin appears on the 15-year-old’s face and he gets a few pats on the back from nearby teammates.

As Sacred Heart return to the pitch, their heads are up, there’s plenty of chat, and the team puts in a much-improved performance in the second half at Tregenza Oval, the home of Old Collegians, one of Adelaide’s most venerable clubs.

Our potential soccer convert is the best player on the pitch in the second stanza. He comes in off his wing looking for work, makes a few more kamikaze-style tackles, shows he has a booming left boot and almost scores in the corner at the end of a determined 30-metre run which includes a spectacular one-footed squat jump to evade the tackle of a burly back rower.

He leaves the field at full time with a smile which is all bloodied lip and multi-coloured mouthguard.

His waiting mother asks him of he’s OK.

‘Yeah, it was fun’, he says.

She looks doubtful, but you can be sure his name will be on the team sheet again next week, parental permission pending.

Prince Alfred College and Sacred Heart College players after a SASRU fixture this year. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyThis interaction between Barry Cooper and Sacred Heart’s new first-choice under 16s winger plays out on a chilly May evening during the 2019 South Australian Schools Rugby Union (SASRU) season, but it’s a scenario which has occurred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times on Adelaide’s rugby fields over the past 50 years.

Cooper first coached at Darlington Primary School in 1970, back when he was a flying 24-year-old winger for Glenelg.

He was one of a handful of first graders who coached sides in the SAPSASA (South Australian Primary Schools Amateur Sports Association) competition, a strategy which ensured a flow of talent into Glenelg’s teenage junior teams and connected the club to the community.

“Darlington didn’t get a team the next year and I was living down at Glenelg at the time, so I went over to Glenelg Primary where they didn’t have rugby, and formed a team there,” says Cooper.

“We didn’t do too bad in the first year, but the following year we won a premiership, and a lot of those players ended up coming through our club or going on to play at other clubs, like Manly in Sydney.”

Barry Cooper and the Glenelg Primary School team. Photo: SuppliedHalf a century later, Cooper’s influence on South Australian Rugby can be measured by 29 senior and junior premierships, life membership and success with state squads, but the unquantifiable is these countless interactions with individuals from non-rugby backgrounds or the crucial mentorship provided to a player at a time of need.

He has shaped so many of the current coaches and administrators at his beloved Brighton RUFC (formed out of Glenelg in 1975) and beyond - and current senior state coach Peter Jackson is a prime example.

“Barry became very much a father figure as well as a coach,” says the 49-year-old, who took the Black Falcons to fourth this year in Division 2 of the National Rugby Championship and has won senior and junior premierships coaching Brighton.

“I came to Brighton at the age of 11, had Barry as a coach for most of my junior rugby, and his son David and I were born only a week apart so we also became the best of friends.

“The only day my father would take off work was Saturday, to come and watch rugby, so Barry wasn’t just a coach to me.

“He became very much a mentor in other ways, and our families shared similar values, so he instilled respect and had a big influence on who I became as a person.”

Barry Cooper (right) as coach of South Australia under 16s in 1975. Photo: SuppliedThe origins of this fatherly influence and solid set of values can perhaps be found in Cooper’s own childhood, spent in the staunchly working class city of Salford, just west of Manchester in northern England.

A ‘war baby’ born a month before the end of WWII, Barry Stuart Shaw was adopted at the age of six by chrome plater James Cooper, who had married his birth mother Eleanor Pauline Shaw, a nurse at Salford Royal Hospital.

“My childhood wasn’t the greatest, you can put it that way,” says Cooper, who thought he was the oldest of five children, but recently discovered he also has an older brother who his mother adopted out when she was only 14.

“It was a pretty tough time for everybody, and I was brought up pretty hard, we struggled through.”

Befitting his blue-collar background, Barry made Salford rugby league under 20s squad when he was only 18, but turned down the opportunity to progress further, choosing to migrate to Australia with his family instead.

“We came for a better life,” says Cooper, who arrived Down Under in 1964 on his 19th birthday with the thick Lancashire accent he retains to this day.

“I didn’t want to lose my family, and coming to Australia was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Barry Cooper with wife Helen at their Adelaide home. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyWhile his family settled in Glenelg, Cooper finished his apprenticeship as a fitter and turner while living in a boarding house in Crows Nest in Sydney, and played lower grades for the North Sydney Bears.

“I didn’t really like playing league up there, because the relationship between Australians and the English immigrants at that time wasn’t real good,” he says.

“So I got away from rugby league completely, and came to South Australia.”

A chance meeting in a Jetty Road dry cleaners with then Glenelg president Alf Chapel brought Cooper to their Bailey Reserve home ground, but his long career with the club which would become Brighton got off to an unexpected false start.

“He (Alf) just looked at me and said; ‘do you play rugby?’

“I said; ‘yeah, I play rugby.’

“He said; ‘why don’t you come down to Bailey Reserve for a game?.

“I said; ‘how will I recognise you?’

“He said; ‘we’re the black and gold team’.

“So I went down there on the Tuesday night and started running around the oval, and all these other blokes started running around the oval, and I went up and introduced myself.

“I went into the change rooms and a bloke called Lionel Waters from NSW signed me up, straight away.

“I went back outside and started running around the oval again, then I saw this other team running around the other way.

“This bloke turns around (Alf), looks at me, and says; ‘Cooper, what are you doing there?’

“I said; ‘you told me to go with the black and gold team.’

“He said; ‘well, we’re black and gold, too.’

Cooper had unwittingly signed up to play with Black Forest, who happened to share colours and a home ground with Glenelg, a critical detail Chapel neglected to mention during the recruitment process.

“Alf went into the change rooms and had a big blue with this Lionel Waters because he’d signed me up,” Cooper says.

“I actually paid for it really bad, because when we played against Glenelg, a few players got right into me.”

After a two-year stint in Western Australia playing in picturesque Cottesloe and working on the railways in the bush, Cooper returned to Adelaide and married his first wife.

His black-and-gold dilemma was solved when the majority of Black Forest’s players moved south to form the red and black of Onkaparinga, Forest folded, and Cooper joined Glenelg.

The Onkaparinga huddle before a junior fixture at Elizabeth RUFC this season. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyGovernment funding was pulled from the SAPSASA competition in the mid 1970s and Cooper, still in his 20s, became concerned the flow of juniors could dry up.

“I looked at the future of the club at that point, and I told management that we needed to start an under 8s side,” he says.

“Waratahs (Burnside), Collegians and these other clubs had already done it, so I became junior organiser, and coached the younger age groups.”

In 1975, the year Glenelg changed name and moved to its current home on Brighton Road, Cooper took charge of the under 16s and won his first Brighton coaching premiership while still playing first grade.

His priorities became clear at the end of the following season when, before he’d turned 30, he made a gallant attempt at retiring.

“I was about 29 and I retired from playing, sort of,” says Cooper.

“But then I was asked to coach the reserve grade side in 1978.

“Sometimes the problem with reserve grade is good captaincy - in the lower grades you need someone to lead a bit - so I had a go at captain coach.”

Cooper won back-to-back premierships, while also coaching the under 16s, and working full time as a machinist for Kelvinator. He later worked at Tenneco Monroe for 30 years as a fitter, turner and team leader.

Barry Cooper in action at Tregenza Oval earlier this year. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyWhile the game was still very much amateur, Cooper did consider trying to rise through the coaching ranks, and turned down an opportunity to move to Brisbane and coach with Brothers where a junior John Eales was learning his rugby.

“I’d loved to have coached at a really, really high level - I had the opportunity to do that in the 70s - but I’d just gotten married, so I didn’t end up going.”

Eales of course went on to captain the Wallabies in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, a victorious team coached by Rod Macqueen, who probably still recalls his encounter with Barry Cooper at a level 3 coaching course in Sydney after Australia’s triumph.

“On the Saturday night we all went to the pub and I told him; ‘well done on the World Cup, but you’ve stuffed the game up’, says Cooper.

“He said; ‘what do you mean?’

“I said; ‘too much defence - you’ve only scored three tries in your last five games - you just won on goal kicks’.

“He said; ‘well, you just do what you have to do to win.’”

Most would say that’s probably a fair response from Macqueen, but Cooper points out you only need to look across the ditch at the Crusaders and their 10 Super Rugby titles to see that you can be both entertaining and successful.

“I’ve followed the Crusaders for years and years, and they play the best rugby in the world,” says Cooper, adding that he finds Australian Super Rugby derbies ‘boring’.

“They’re free flowing, moving the ball, not running into the defence and smashing it up all the time, but moving the ball and creating gaps.

“They make room for themselves by going back and standing off, the modern rush-up defensive lines start to stagger and, when they break the line, they also have so much support.

“They’re exciting, I love the way they play, and it’s the way we should be playing.”

Getty image of the Crusaders lifting the trophy this year; Barry Cooper says the Crusaders play the best rugby in the world.

Cooper admits the game is almost unrecognisable from when he first began trotting around Bailey Reserve, but has been stringent in maintaining the required qualifications and staying across the constant law changes.

“I try and keep up with the times, it’s no good me turning around to the players and saying; ‘well, this was the way we used to do it way back when’,” he says.

“But the basic skills have never changed.

“It’s so important that you work on those; passing, tackling, cleaning out, and by watching a lot of rugby you can also see how the game is changing, and you listen to people.

“Even if a young bloke comes up to you and says; ‘why don’t we try this, Barry?’

“You’ve got to give the players a chance to explore the way they play the game.”

This is echoed by Brighton president Wayne Londema, one of an ever-expanding group of coaches and administrators at the club who have at one stage been coached by Cooper.

“He is always one to try and get the players to think about things and come up with stuff, as well as his own ideas,” says Londema, whose father Theo was a teammate of Cooper’s back in the Glenelg days.

“He tries to empower the players.

“He also has great people skills, in terms of managing players and helping them get back if they were injured, or helping them with their game - just keeping people playing and helping them get the best out of themselves.

“He also has a trademark for giving young guys a go, helping create that link between the seniors and the juniors, and has a great eye for talent.”

Juniors at Old Collegians this season. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyIn a match-day program from 2012, life member Dennis Holyoak noted that Cooper also never shied away from dropping players when necessary, a policy he employed right from his first year as Brighton’s senior coach in 1980.

“I brought through a hooker (Steven Kowalick) from under 18s and the incumbent (Glen Millar) picked up his gear and walked out,” he recalls.

“That was a bit sad, really, he could have been a big help because he’d been captain coach for two or three years.

“I just turned around to Steven and said; ‘well, you’re in now’.

“He played for two years with me, then went off to Sydney, and played first grade for Sydney University when Nick Farr-Jones was the half back, and also played for Sydney against the All Blacks.”

Millar thankfully returned in time and is still involved at Brighton, and while Cooper has a clear distaste for nepotism, he says becoming part of the global rugby family can definitely open a few doors.

“Playing rugby also gives you a head start in life, because it’s a tough team game, and the same things that carry you through on the field also give you more confidence in life,” he says.

“You make lots of friends, you can go anywhere in the world and play, and you’re probably a good chance of getting a good job, too.

“That’s an incredibly powerful thing.”

Barossa Rams seniors in Lyndoch this season. Photo: Rugby AU Media/Stuart WalmsleyAs you walk through Cooper’s Glengowrie home where he lives with second wife Helen, you lose count of the framed photographs depicting triumphant teams, in most cases flanked by a bespectacled Barry.

After winning five Division 1 premierships on the trot with Brighton between 2008-12, Cooper decided to ‘step back’ from the club’s top job, but remained heavily involved with state, junior and school teams.

A challenge of an entirely different kind caused a complete rugby hiatus for most of 2018, when the veteran coach was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“It was a pretty tough blow for me, but I was always going to fight it,” the 74-year-old says.

“It’s still there in my bones, but the drug I’m on has stopped it spreading.

“It’s called living with cancer.”

After bringing yet another crop of players through the junior ranks at Brighton, Kiwi import Gareth Atkinson took over Cooper’s under 18 coaching duties, but grand final day would still deliver one of the most emotional moments for Barry in half a century at the club.

In a decision demonstrating both humility and good judgement, Atkinson asked Cooper to deliver the final address to the players before they ran out to take on Old Collegians in the 2018 decider.

“I was a no one and had come to this club, picked up this team, and they’d had a pretty rough season the year before, so it took a bit of hard work to get them into place - but he (Cooper) was a special guy to them,” says Atkinson.

“He is a bit of a father figure at Brighton, so I asked him to go in and say a few words to them.

“He did his thing, I left them to it, then they went out and did the business.”

Embed image from gallery of 2018 under 18 grand final: Embed code below

After losing both their regular season fixtures to Old Cols, Brighton led 35-7 at oranges and, at full time, the victorious squad sprinted to the sideline to mob their mentor.

“I wasn’t really that well and I thought I was going to fall on the floor, but it was so good, I was so proud of them,” says Cooper.

“Moments like that - it’s just a magnificent feeling - that’s why I love the game so much.”

The team presented Cooper with a special premiership medal and, after losing several grand finals through the age groups at Brighton with Barry as coach, it was an ‘awesome’ result for skipper Cameron Field and the squad members progressing to senior rugby.

“It felt like, even though Gareth was the coach that year (in 2018), we won it for Barry,” says the 18-year-old, who was first coached by Cooper at the age of 11.

Atkinson coached the squad to another premiership in 2019, moving Field from outside centre to scrum half in a Cooper-like initiative, and Barry took an under 16s team to a major semi final after they struggled to win a game in 2018.

“He’s watching all the teams, looking at all the juniors coming up - he lives, breathes and sweats rugby.” says Atkinson.

“Most of the coaches at the club have been coached by him, he’s been there so long, and you can see his influence.

“He’s always got a trick up his sleeve, a bit like (England coach) Eddie Jones.”

 An artist’s impression of Brighton RUFC’s new clubrooms after the Brighton Oval redevelopment (left) and the old clubhouse (right).The club will benefit greatly from the current $13.7 million redevelopment of the Brighton Oval sporting complex, with a new pitch, purpose-built club house and female-friendly change rooms - but there’s one old fixture they’d struggle to do without.

“Whether he’s sick or not, he’ll still be there if he can be,” says Atkinson, adding that Cooper often uses his vast network of contacts to find opportunities for players beyond Brighton.

“There’s a lad who was playing outside centre for us this year, he’s a big unit and shifts fast, but he (Barry) was trying to get a game for him as a prop.

“He was saying; ‘you’re good and you’re fast and strong over here in South Australia, but if you move to the front row and move to the eastern states, you’ll be a Wallaby’.

“So he’s always looking at talent and, if people want to go places, he’ll do stuff for them.

“He loves it. It’s his life.

“Rugby’s not just a sport for Barry, he’s the bloke where rugby’s his life.”


Barry Cooper’s coaching timeline - life member of SARU and BRUFC

1970-74: Darlington and Glenelg Primary School

1974: BRUFC under 14s

1975: BRUFC under 16s premiership

1975-78: South Australia under 16s

1975-79: BRUFC junior organiser

1977: BRUFC under 18s premiership

1978-79: BRUFC Div 2 premiership

1980-81: BRUFC Div 1 premiership

1981-82: South Australia under 12s

1982: BRUFC Div 1 runner up

1983: BRUFC Div 1 premiership

1983-87: South Australia under 16s

1984-85: BRUFC under 14s premiership

1986: BRUFC under 16s premiership

1986: South Australia School Sevens

1988: BRUFC Div 1

1989: BRUFC Div 1 premiership

1990: BRUFC Div 1

1991: Board of Referees appointments and assessment

1992-97: BRUFC Div 1 premiership

1993-94: South Australia under 16s

1995-96: South Australia seniors assistant coach

1996: South Australia under 21s, Black Falcons International Sevens

1998: Black Falcons International Sevens assistant coach

1998-99: BRUFC Div 1 runner up

2000-01: South Australia Seniors

2001: BRUFC under 18s premiership

2002-03: BRUFC Div 1 coaching coordinator

2004-05: BRUFC Div 1 premiership

2006: BRUFC Div 1 runner up

2007: Admitted to SARU Hall of Fame

2007-12: BRUFC Div 1 premiership

2013: South Australia Seniors, Sacred Heart College head coach, under 12s BRUFC runner up

2014: South Australia under 14s, Onkaparinga assistant senior coach, BRUFC under 16s runner up, Scared Heart College premiership

2015: South Australia gold squad coaching director, BRUFC under 16s premiership, Sacred Heart College

2016: BRUFC under 16s runner up, Sacred Heart College

2017: South Australia under 16s, BRUFC under 16s runner up, Sacred Heart College under 16s

2018: BRUFC under 16s mentor

2019: BRUFC under 16s, Sacred Heart College under 18s

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