Mike Cooper: From Wire to Wollongong and back again

Out of all of the English success stories in the NRL in recent seasons, Mike Cooper‘s is probably the most unlikely.

At the end of 2013 Cooper swapped Warrington, where he had spent his whole career, for St George Illawarra.

He had racked up more than 130 games for the Wire and had won silverware with the club, but left Super League as someone primarily used in a bench role. Dependable but under the radar, stuck behind Chris Hill and Adrian Morely in the Warrington pecking order. James Graham or Sam Burgess he was not.

Cooper headed down under as an England Knights representative, as someone with plenty of first-grade experience, but one with little external pressure or expectation attached to him to succeed in Australia.

Despite arriving in the NRL with little fanfare, the prop thrived.

He quickly established himself as a starter with the Dragons, winning plaudits for his no-nonsense, traditional forward play. Tough, uncompromising, here was an old-school front-runner who would work his guts out and give it everything.

The stats tell the tale. In Cooper’s first season with the Red V he played every game but one, managing nine starting appearances and four off the bench. He averaged 28 tackles, 10 hit-ups and 89 metres per game and his displays earned him a spot in England‘s 2014 Four Nations squad.

The NRL is a sink or swim environment and Cooper swam.

His second campaign, in 2015, was even better. He established himself as a front-row starter, averaging 37 tackles, 11 hit-ups and 107 metres a match. The Dragons went from an 11th place finish in 2014 to eighth, just making the finals.

A season built on miserly defence helped St George Illawarra into the semis, where they were unluckily knocked out in golden point by the Bulldogs. Still, progress was made and Cooper was at the heart of it. The Englishman was in demand from other NRL clubs but he decided to stay where he was and re-signed with the Dragons. At the end of the year he made his full international debut and helped England knock off the Kiwis in their Test series 2-1.

But if 2015 was successful for his club, 2016 was anything but.

The Dragons missed the finals, finishing 11th, and there was a catalogue of distractions to contend with: off-field incidents, a drink driving charge against the coach, a supporter campaign to oust the CEO and poor form on the field. There’s no way of beating around the bush – it was a year from hell for the Red V.

With a new baby and after several years in the NRL, the lure of family and familiar pastures was strong for Cooper. He decided to make the call to return to Warrington in 2017. But the front-rower admits the dismal way the season fell apart this year for the Dragons did eventually influence his decision to head home to Super League.

“We had a tough year at the Dragons this year which probably didn’t help, it might have been different if it was a different season,” Cooper says.

“It was really disappointing at how last year went at the club, not me personally, but the way we crumbled all the way through. It was a massive let down and you know the NRL can be pretty fierce in terms of the pressure you’re under and it was just a really difficult season.”

Cooper believes a big part of the problem at St George Illawarra was changing the effective tactics of last season, where the side was built around their ultra-strong defence, to focus more on attack. The halves partnership of Benji Marshall and Garteh Widdop never clicked, while the move of Josh Dugan from fullback to centres was a failure.

“There was a lot of talk that we didn’t score enough points and people seemed to forget that we were one of the best defensive sides in the competition for a long, long time,” he says.

“This year it went completely away from that, we just focused too much on the attack in my opinion. Everyone was a little bit guilty of listening to outside noise instead of focusing on and carrying on from where we left off. I kind of knew when we came back in for pre-season that it wasn’t going to be the same sort of structure from the year before.

“It’s just a big opportunity lost and its made it frustrating, and to be honest with you, if they don’t make big changes then they’ll be in the same situation next year.”

Despite the Dragons’ poor run of results this year, Cooper was again a standout. The 28-year old led the Dragons forwards in metres, was fourth overall in tackles made and fifth in runs. His performances have again earned a call-up for England, with Wayne Bennett selecting him for the 2016 Four Nations.

With his time at St George Illawarra and in the NRL now ended, Cooper believes changes need to be made at his old club. If the Dragons are to become a force in rugby league once more, just like in the days of Johnny Raper and Reg Gasnier, then there needs to be new ideas and and fresh leadership.

“I think a lot of that people have been there a long time, employing people that have been in the club isn’t always the best move. Sometimes you need fresh ideas and maybe that’s what they need moving forward, but I know everyone there genuinely just wants the club to proceed and they’ll do anything they can to make that happen.

“But from an outsider’s point of view now having left, I think they need a good freshen up and remember it’s not the St George of old and it has to be rebuilt since Wayne Bennett had success. They always revert back to the glory years of 11 in a row.

“That was a long time ago, the club’s sort of built on that and still talking about that and I think they maybe need to move on from that era because that isn’t where the clubs at at the minute. Sometimes I think maybe the fans think that the brand’s bigger than it actually is in terms of the league and member and numbers and fans turning up on the gate. The clubs not where it was and that’s the reality.”

Cooper speaks like he plays, with brutal honesty and a directness of purpose. His focus is now on his national team, with England seeking to break its unwanted record that it has never won the Four Nations. Tomorrow he will pack down against France in Avignon in a warm-up match for the tournament.

The forward feels England‘s secret weapon in the Four Nations could be not be a returning Burgess but actually coach Bennett: “He’s got this great aura about him which makes you feel good about yourself when you leave the conversation with him. You just get that presence which great coaches have got like Alex Ferguson. People say when he walks in the room you feel his presence and Wayne’s got that.

“I think he could be the key ingredient really for the success this year because the last few years have been so close. Obviously we beat the Kiwis last year who were a little bit under strength, but it’s that last 20 minutes of the game where we just have to find the answer to Australia or New Zealand at full-strength. So I really do think he’ll be the key to kick in that little problem and hopefully there’ll be success.

“Wayne’s not know as a master tactitioner. He’s more of a ‘get the best out of the individuals’. so it’ll be interesting to see what he does, he’s more of a man motivator I would say.”
 
At the end of the year Cooper’s eyes will turn towards Warrington. He will join an impressive forward pack that inlcudes Chris Hill, Ashton Sims, Ben Westwood, Ben Currie, Jack Hughes, and new recruits Dom Crosby and Andre Savelio.
 
Cooper reveals he had interest from other Super League clubs for 2017, but his bond with the Wire remains strong.

“It was a case of speaking to Warrington first. We had an agreement when I left that, not that I had to sign there, but sort of they did the right thing by letting me go in the first place and me being a local boy it was the first team i spoke to. My manager made it clear straight away that they were interested, we had couple of chats with another team that were pretty keen, but the decision was made at the end and I’m not going to name names but I was always going to stick with my hometown club.

“They gave me the opportunity and whatever money in the whole world I’ll always be loyal to my home town. I was really keen on was going back there in my prime as well, I’ve just turned 28 so the next few years especially in the forward position are generally your strongest. I’m really looking forward to having my peak years back in my home town club and iIknow I’ll be a part of success there.”

Warrington endured a good 2016 winning the League Leader’s Shield but just fell short in the Challenge Cup final and grand final by the smallest of margins. But Cooper is adamant the future is bright at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

With the right mixture of youth and experience, the prop believes Warrington will break its premiership drought soon.

“What’s most impressive about them is the age of the players. Most of them lads are only young kids in their early 20s. The future’s really bright for the club and a couple of them are local lads and that’ll be really important for me. I’ll be campaigning when I get back to get local players from Warrington playing for the clubm and you see from Wigan and Leeds over the last few years a lot of them lads who’ve had success have been local players.

“I genuinely believe that Warrington in the next five to six years and moving forward is going to be that next team that has local juniors coming through and winning trophies for them – that’s what I’m looking forward too.”

 

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