PETER JACKSON, rugby writer for the Daily Mail for 35 years and President-elect of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club, pays tribute to former PA rugby correspondent Terry Cooper, who has died after a long illness.
Terry Cooper possessed an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time from a very early age, as if guided by an innate sense of sporting history.
It took him to The Oval late in the wondrous Olympian summer of 1948, not just for any old Ashes Test match but the one which just happened to mark Don Bradman’s last innings. Five years later, on a Wednesday afternoon at Wembley, he, along with 104,999 others, witnessed another landmark occasion, the so-called Match of the Century.
England had never lost a football match at home to anyone from continental Europe, until Hungary gave them a lesson they would never forget. The ‘Mighty Magyars’ won 6-3 with Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti accounting for five of their goals.
Cooper would have been 13, at the very most. Football ran in the family, his father having been good enough to play for Kingstonian, then one of the country’s leading amateur clubs as demonstrated by their appearance at Wembley in the 1960 FA Amateur Cup final, won by Hendon.
How the young Cooper made the transition from one football code to the other is not clear but his love of rugby had taken him to Twickenham before he embarked on a life-long career with the national news agency, the Press Association.
Before the blurring of the demarcation lines separating the rugby and cricket seasons, Cooper enjoyed the best of both worlds. As the PA’s rugby correspondent and a senior member of their cricket staff, he wrote about the sports he loved best.
Rugby allowed him to transport his boyhood sense of the big event to many of the greatest occasions in the English game and beyond, from Grand Slams to World Cups and Lions’ tours.
He knew everybody who was anybody in rugby union. They knew him, they listened to him and they made time for him because what Terry wanted to know would invariably set the agenda for the nationals, radio and television.
For decades, official England team announcements were made through ‘TC’. He was ahead of the game, more often than not. During the volatile summer of 1995 which ended with rugby going ‘open’, as in open to professionalism, Cooper’s shrewd understanding of the often Machiavellian politics of Twickenham affairs brought him a scoop.
Will Carling’s captaincy of England had been left hanging in the air after the team’s anti-climactic fourth-place finish at the World Cup in South Africa a few weeks earlier. Cooper got wind that Jack Rowell, then England’s manager-coach, was meeting Carling for lunch at the East India Club.
Cooper bided his time, then picked up the phone. Carling told the story in his autobiography: “When Terry made his annual start-of-the-season call to enquire if I was remaining as captain, I told him yes, that it had not been officially confirmed but that Jack had asked me to continue.
“Cooper put the story out over the wires and that was when the trouble started. Jack was upbraided by several members of the RFU committee, plus Don Rutherford (then the Technical Director) for not clearing the decision through the normal channels.
“And instead of apologising, which would have tidied the matter up within seconds, he (Rowell) went on the offensive. He called me from his mobile phone. ‘Will, you’ve placed me in a very embarrassing position with the captaincy. I can’t remember asking you to carry on.’
Rugby writing today lost a legend with the death of Terry Cooper who covered rugby and cricket for. @pasport . For decades the official link between the RFU and the public, all Eng teams released by him. My great friend for nearly 40 years. Back row second from left with Curtley pic.twitter.com/6vzEWT0bcu
— chris jones (@chrisjonespress) January 31, 2020
“I was flabbergasted. I could hear voices in the background and thought he was making the call for effect but he refused to elaborate. ‘Whatever you remember, Jack,’ I said and put down the phone.”
Carling continued as captain until the end of that season, Cooper as the PA’s walking encyclopaedia on the game until the end of the century, aided and abetted by the occasional glass of port and brandy. It would jolt him into action, ready for whatever the day had to throw at him.
Tony Roche, the inimitable rugby correspondent of Today and The Sun, knew him better than anyone. “I am proud to say Terry was my friend for 36 years and I am heartbroken at his passing,’’ Tony said. “Terry was an exceptional journalist, truly an expert in the world of rugby union and cricket.
“I cannot remember one player/coach/blazer who refused Terry an interview and he was such a fixture at Twickenham that the RFU security staff showed him their credentials. I will forever miss him.’’
Cooper: Why did your team play so badly? Kafer: I only answer specific questions. Cooper: Specifically, why did your team play so badly?
He loved Irish rugby and the Lions almost as much as England. He had great respect for Wales and Scotland although it would be fair to say that neither Cardiff nor Edinburgh were among his favourite places.
Whatever the venue, Cooper was a master of the agency reporter’s craft, as explained by David Lloyd, an ex-colleague as the PA’s cricket correspondent. “He was made for agency work,’’ Lloyd wrote on cricketerwriters.com. “He was in his element ad-libbing copy over the phone at a time when the PA served dozens and dozens of evening papers.
“If all the sports journalists in all the world had been lined up in individual boxes in, let’s say 1990, and told to dictate running copy with regular leads on the action unfolding before them – without the aid of TV replays, radio commentary or assistance from colleagues – Terry would have been marked a lot nearer top than bottom. And maybe even top had he been allowed a couple of glasses of red for company.’’
He was never afraid to ask the tough question. Once after a dreary Sunday at Vicarage Road where Saracens had fallen to a grim home defeat, he asked the club’s then head coach, the ex-Wallaby stand-off Rod Kafer, the first question.
“Why,’’ said Cooper. “Did your team play so badly?’’
Kafer: “I only answer specific questions.’’
Cooper: “Specifically, why did your team play so badly?’’
The laughter drowned out Kafer’s answer. The colleagues he has left behind will remember him as an old-fashioned reporter from a heavenly time pre-mobile phones, pre-social media, when journalists went about their business without sponsors and so-called press officers blocking their access.
Terry Cooper died early last Friday after a long illness at the age of 78. Chris Jones, his friend of almost 40 years, formerly of Extel and The Evening Standard, now the Sunday Times, said that rugby had ‘lost a legend.’
Terry’s multitude of friends will join the SJA in sending their sympathy to his wife, Vivian, daughter Elaine, son Philip and their families.
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