Cooper content to ride Thurston's coattails

Cooper content to ride Thurston's coattails

Gavin Cooper has been around the block enough times to know that a big reason for his recall to the Queensland Origin team for Game Two is the combination he has formed over a decade with Johnathan Thurston.

He's also pragmatic enough to know that when the story of Thurston's extraordinary career is told in the years to come he will be a single page in a chapter of the book of JT's exploits; and he is just fine with that.

At 31 years of age Cooper is the veteran Origin rookie in this dramatically altered Maroons team, his 249 games of NRL experience over 12 seasons belying the fact that he has the grand total of one Origin games to his name.

Cooper and Thurston joined the Cowboys together in 2005 and while Cooper went on to win a Queensland Cup title with the Young Guns team, Thurston was taking his new team all the way to the Telstra Premiership grand final.

After stints at the Titans and Panthers Cooper returned to Townsville in 2011 and has spent the past seven years forming a combination with Thurston on North Queensland's left edge that Maroons coach Kevin Walters is banking on to help keep the series alive.

In the 76 career games that Cooper played at the Titans and Panthers he scored seven tries at a rate of one every 10.86 games; at North Queensland with the influence of Thurston that strike rate lowers drastically to a try every 3.26 games (54 tries in 176 games).

When Thurston went down with a knock to the knee during training on Sunday Cooper was one of the first to check on his welfare – "I tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'Geez, you can find a story'" – and plans to be by his side for the entire 80 minutes on Wednesday night.

"We've played a lot of footy together now but we're good mates as well," Cooper said.

"Been together a lot, been roomies for a long time. We actually moved to the Cowboys at the same time but I was playing Young Guns and he moved up to play NRL.

"He's a couple of years older than me but always hung out and always spoke and he was the first person I called when I moved back to the Cowboys.

"When we finally make a statue of him somewhere I'll take a photo next to it and tell the kids that I used to run around with him."

With more than 200 first grade games and pushing 30 years of age plenty of jokes were made when Cooper was invited into the Emerging Origin camp for the first time in 2015 and then finally, a month shy of his 31st birthday last year he played his first game for Queensland.

Beyond the extended Cooper family no one was happier for him than his Cowboys teammates who insist that while he has flown under the radar to the wider rugby league public for much of his career, they know exactly what he contributes to a team.

"He's a very unselfish player," says Maroons utility Michael Morgan. "If there's a break on the other side of the field people will see 'JT' [Thurston] chase but they never notice 'Coops' but he's usually there as well.

"We see stats every week at the Cowboys and he's usually one of the top three in kilometres done for a game, so he's travelling some metres. Always near the top of the tackle count and defensively he's really good. I know JT is more than comfortable with him there and has been for a long time.

"He does a lot of work that people don't notice, whether it's a half-break and Coops is there cleaning up and win a play-the-ball back. People just watching the game wouldn't pick up on but as teammates you see it every week."

Six members of this Maroons team have a combined Origin experience of just two games but even before he made his debut last year Cooper said that the familiar faces of the Cowboys in the squad and his history in the game took much of the fear away of playing for his state.

"I think I feel comfortable at this level because I've played against these boys for 10, 11, 12 years now," Cooper said.

"There are guys in here that in my debut year they were all playing, all the older boys in the team.

"I've played a lot of footy now. I know I haven't played the amount of representative footy that these guys have but footy's footy.

"I've played a couple of finals series, won a grand final now so played in some big games so I think that can rub off.

"Origin is a different beast in itself and I found that out last year in Game Three. I've got a little taste of it but I wouldn't quite call it a lot of experience yet.

"I'm very comfortable with my position in the team just because I have had experience throughout my career.

"I know Origin is the biggest that we have in the middle of the year and there's a lot of scrutiny that comes with it but you can't make these teams without warranting a selection, I suppose.

"Kevvie's got me here to go out and do a job and that's what I'll be going to do."

And no one will be happier that he is there to do it than his good mate 'JT'.