On the verge of his 14th season with the Dragons, evergreen centre Matt Cooper chats with Mercury sports writer ADAM PENGILLY about the constant coaching speculation at the Dragons, why he loves the fact they’ve been written off in 2013, the need to constantly evolve his own game and plans to tackle obesity in society post-football.
Adam Pengilly: I know it’s easy to say the Craig Bellamy saga didn’t affect pre-season preparations, but how much of an impact did it have within the playing group?
Matt Cooper: I don’t think it was an issue for the players. That was probably more [an issue] for the staff. We’re here this year, Pricey’s [coach Steve Price] here this year and that’s all we were concerned about. I suppose it is good for the club and everyone involved in the Dragons ... that it’s over. We don’t have to keep talking about it and we can concentrate on talking footy.
AP: Can you give us an insight into how Steve Price has handled the situation and if his approach this year has been different to last season?
MC: I think that Pricey did a great job last year. It’s a tough gig being the Dragons coach and he’s come after Wayne Bennett. It was going to be a tough gig no matter what ... for anyone. I think he did a great job last year and I’ve been impressed with his attitude and abilities this preseason. I think it’s going to be a good year for us – I honestly do. A lot of people have written us off but that’s fine. I enjoy that. We’re confident in our ability and what we’re doing here. Pricey has done a great job and I’m confident he’ll be part of this club for many more years.
AP: I know you probably haven’t dwelt too much on last year, but have you pinpointed an area why the Dragons were slightly off the pace in 2012?
MC: We missed that ball-playing fullback. Although Brett [Morris] and Jason Nightingale who played most of the year at fullback had great seasons, I just think the way the game’s going at the moment your No1 is vital in the sense of ball playing.
What we’ve done this year in buying Gerard Beale, he’s going to bring that to the Dragons. He’s been really good at training and hopefully he can get better as the year goes on and he can transform into one of those top fullbacks in the game.
He’s so athletic, he’s so skilful and he’s fast – he’s got all the attributes of a Ben Barba or a Billy Slater.
AP: What expectations can Dragons fans have about their side in 2013 then?
MC: We’ve always prided ourselves on our defence ... and that’s clearly a goal to be in the top four defensive sides in the comp. This year we need to get better at our attack. We were well down last year in terms of numbers, stats and points. Personally, I just need to get involved more. I think last year I got comfortable and I was waiting for the ball too much.
This year I’m going to try to get myself more involved in the game and hopefully the more touches I have the better game I will have.
AP: Does your body feel like you could play beyond this season if the mind wants to keep going?
MC: Last year was pretty hard, but this year has clearly been the hardest preseason I’ve done. Asking me the question right now, the body’s feeling good. I’m sure I could keep playing. Like I’ve said a few times before it might be a different answer if you ask me in round 16. I’m hoping to get to that point in the year where I’m feeling good, I’m feeling fresh and who knows, I could play another year.
AP: You’re the longest-serving Dragon still at the club. How has the place changed since you made your debut 14 years ago?
MC: Obviously technology has got better, we’re training a lot smarter and recovery has changed a lot. The skill level has gone up a lot. We’ve got kids coming in now who are very skilful and very big. I know when I came into grade I was pretty skinny – and so were all the other young blokes. We get players that are coming up from the 20s [now] and their physiques are as big as ours.
AP: Having those young guys around, could they be the tonic to make you the most capped Dragon of all time?
MC: It’s great having those young players around – they keep me motivated. They push me and I push them back. I really enjoy teaching them what I’ve learnt over the years and trying to mould them into great players.
I’ve been trying to help blokes like Nathan [Green] and Charly Runciman to get the best out of them.
AP: Have you started making plans for life after football?
MC: The business [Moose And I fashion store which Cooper runs with wife Dallas and sister-in-law Abbie] is going good and the family is going really good. I’ve got two daughters now and they keep me busy. Joshy Miller and I have just taken over the gym at Wollongong TAFE.
We’ve got some plans in the future to start up a business called Dragon Fit. People will enjoy training with us. The way society is going at the moment there’s a lot of obesity and we’re just trying to do our part in educating people about how to eat well and train well.
Pick up Tuesday's Mercury for your copy of Kick-Off, the 24-page NRL liftout