Mike Cooper ready to rumble against James Graham

St George Illawarra prop Mike Cooper is looking forward to playing in his first NRL semi-final this weekend, and locking horns against fellow Englishman James Graham.

Cooper and the Dragons will take on Graham’s Canterbury Bulldogs on Saturday at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium in the qualifying final. St George Illawarra finished in eighth spot while the Dogs finished fifth.

Cooper, who is in his second season with the Red V after joining from Warrington at the start of 2014, is excited for the important match.

“I like to play in big games,” he said.

“It’s been nice to play in a few of them in England. I’m really looking forward to Saturday, hopefully there’ll be a big crowd at ANZ.

“These are the games you really looking forward to playing in when you’re a kid, big crowds, so I’m very excited.”

The Dragons scraped into the finals, after defeating Wests Tigers in the last round, while the Bulldogs had a close win over New Zealand Warriors.

“I’m not reading into last weekend’s performance against the Warriors,” Cooper said.

“I’m fully aware how difficult they will be to overcome. They’re an experienced finals team, which is something we’re not. We don’t have a lot of experience, we have as individuals, but not as a playing group so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.

“In saying that we’ve played them twice this year, they beat us once and we beat them once, so it’s 50-50 on the stats this year. We’re all pretty confident we can get the job done.”

England international Graham has been one of the best front-rowers in the NRL and played in two grand finals since arriving from St Helens in 2012.

Cooper has excelled in the Australian competition and in May the 26-year old signed a new two-year deal with the Dragons. He describes Graham as one of the benchmark props in the NRL.

“Other than the fact that he’s English, he’s a quality forward, one of the benchmark prop forwards of the competition,” Cooper said.

“So it’ll be a good challenge for me, as it is every week. We were together in the England camp [last year]. I didn’t really know James before that but I got to know him pretty well. We all caught mid-year with the rest of the England players.

“He’s a good bloke and a quality player. He’s certainly someone that most young forwards would look up to. I’m guessing in the Super League if you’re looking to go over to the NRL, it’s someone like him you’d be looking towards.

“It’ll be a good test for me.”

With Graham and fellow internationals Greg Eastwood, David Klemmer, Josh Jackson, Sam Kasiano, Frank Pritchard and veteran Aidan Tolman, the Bulldogs boast one of the biggest forward packs in the competition.

Cooper is expecting a particularly tough battle in the middle of the pack.

“I think the main thing for us is that we were really criticized for our forward pack last year,” he admitted.

“There were question marks at the start of this year but I think we’ve had our best performances against the bigger sides in the competition.

“We seem to be able to rise to the occasion and back our fitness over our size really, and that’s gotten us over the line a few times against the bigger forward packs. It’s certainly going to be a physical game.”


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