I thought that ship had sailed
I got the call six weeks short of my 31st birthday.
It was the day of our little boy Archie’s second birthday and my wife Tenille – yes, she was named after the lady who sang Love Will Keep Us Together with the Captain in the 1970s – was due to give birth to our second child on the Thursday.
It was a Monday afternoon and the Cowboys had beaten Souths 20-0 in Cairns the day before.
I was back in Townsville and had a couple of missed calls from our coach, Paul Green. I thought someone must’ve done something silly the night before while we were still up there. Maybe even me! I’d had a couple of beers and was a bit dusty, so I was ducking for cover.
I pressed silent on the phone but he rang again.
‘This must be important,’ I thought. ‘I’d better take it’.
Greeny told me Kevvy Walters was going to call me soon and that I was playing Origin.
‘Shit joke, Greeny,’ I said. ‘I’m a bit dusty.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘He’ll be ringing you soon,’ and hung up.
Then Kevvy called me and told me I’d been selected to make my Queensland debut. Queensland had already clinched the Origin series by winning the first two games in 2016 but Michael Morgan was out injured and I was being named on the bench.
‘I thought that ship had sailed,’ I said to him.
‘No, mate,’ Kevvy replied. ‘You’ve been close for a while and now’s your chance. I know you’re having a baby this week but I’d love you to come down to camp.’
‘Mate, it’s my first Origin, not my 10th,’ I said. ‘I’ll be down there as soon as I can!’
My wife and I moved the young fellow – Reggie, we called him – forward two days to be delivered on the Tuesday and I flew down to camp Thursday morning.
It was a whirlwind experience, as you can probably imagine, but I loved every minute of it. I was getting up towards 250 first-grade games at the time and the guys in the Queensland team were people I’d played against – or with, in some cases – for many years.
They made me feel right at home.
It’s no secret I got a big leg-up from my combination with Johnathan Thurston at North Queensland. We lost the game but to get in there and actually score a try off one of my first runs, from a little play JT and I had run a million times at the Cowboys, was pretty cool.
‘IT TOLD ME I BELONGED’
The following year, Morgs was fit again and before they named the team for Origin I, Kevvy told me, ‘We’re going back to the guys who won last year’.
I really appreciated hearing it straight from him.
Queensland suffered a heavy loss in game one and made a heap of changes afterwards. I got back in and my young teammate at the Cowboys, Coen Hess, was one of four blokes picked to make his debut.
Even though it was only my second Origin game, I got the chance to present Hessie with his Maroons jersey. That’s how it works in Origin. That’s how you pull everyone in tight. It was an emotional moment for both of us.
Queensland won games two and three to clinch the series in 2017 and I’m back again this year.
NSW pulled our pants down a couple of times in Melbourne a fortnight ago but we weren’t far off. And here we are again for game two.
I think everyone knows what Queensland are capable of in this situation. Every Origin game is a must-win as far as we’re concerned but then there are those games that are absolutely, positively must-win or you’re dead.
That’s when being a Queenslander kicks in hard.
Some of those champion players who had so much to do with the 11 series wins in 12 years before this year are gone but the Queensland way was invented before they came along.
It was handed down to them and it’ll keep being handed down.
It hits you in the eye in camp when you see guys like Kevvy, Alfie Langer and Gilly heavily involved in the preparation. You’re never far away from Queensland greatness.
Greeny told me Kevvy Walters was going to call me soon and that I was playing Origin. ‘Shit joke, Greeny,’ I said. ‘I’m a bit dusty.’
They tell a few war stories about how it was back then and, when it’s not serious time at training, it’s a lot of fun. I love how all these guys who bash each other every week in the NRL suddenly become best mates.
The incredible support you get from people all over Queensland is never far away. You can feel it. I was on that side of the fence for the first 30 years of my life.
As a little kid in Murgon, the Queensland jersey was everything to me. I’d stay up to watch the games.
As a first-grader for the Cowboys, I knew every time Queensland won it would just make it harder for me to break into the team. But it didn’t stop me from supporting them.
We’d have Origin parties at my place. Invite some friends around, heat up the party pies and sausage rolls and get stuck in. Everyone would be screaming at the TV.
I’d find some Maroons gear to wear – a training shirt or a pair of shorts someone had given me. JT gave Tenille one of his Queensland jerseys years ago and she’d throw that on. I got her a No.11 after I made my debut and she wears that now.
To be a part of Origin after waiting so long for my chance – to actually live and breathe it over the course of a series – is unbelievable.
I would’ve considered it a cracking story just to play one Origin. Now, I’m about to play my fifth.
After I got back in and played game two last year, Kevvy started asking my opinion on a few things.
I said, ‘Mate, I’ve only played two Origins,’ and he said, ‘Yeah but you’ve played 250 first-grade games, you know what footy’s all about’.
The fact he saw me as someone to go to was a huge confidence booster. I knew how I saw myself at the Cowboys with my experience and what that counted for but to be asked by the coach what I thought about how we should approach certain situations in Origin … that was another step up.
It told me I belonged.
MEANT TO BE A COWBOY
I’m a bit of a believer in fate. I reckon everything happens for a reason.
I’d pretty much cemented my place in first-grade at the Cowboys as a 21-year-old in 2006 but then the Titans came calling. New club, exciting opportunity and, being a young fella, I was chasing a bit more cash as well.
It didn’t work out as I’d hoped. I didn’t embrace it and enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I played plenty of first-grade with the Titans to start with but later in my second year, I ended up in Queensland Cup.
I had an offer to go to Penrith but I was a bit hesitant to move to NSW. I nearly went back to the Cowboys thinking that was the safest option but, in the end, I made the jump to the Panthers on a two-year deal. I absolutely loved the joint.
I’m a country boy, so living near the beach at the Goldy wasn’t that big a deal to me. Give me a creek over the beach any day.
Penrith weren’t prepared to give me the money I wanted to stay, though. It can be a bit of a poker game negotiating deals and they were trying to keep hold of Frankie Pritchard as a priority.
I decided to go back to the Cowboys.
I would’ve considered it a cracking story just to play one Origin. Now I’m about to play my fifth.
Three o’clock one afternoon I accepted the Cowboys’ offer and nine o’clock that night, Frankie texted all the boys to say he was moving to the Bulldogs.
The next day I had a couple of conversations with the coach at Penrith, Matty Elliott. The club wanted to know how far along my decision had gone, whether I’d signed a contract or put anything else in writing. They came up with more cash for me to stay.
It was only an email to the Cowboys at that stage, so I could’ve easily changed my mind and, after talking to Matty, it was a rough couple of days trying to decide whether to go or stay. But Tenille and I talked about it and we stuck with my original decision.
I’ve never regretted it.
I actually moved back to play on the right edge but when the 2011 season started, Scotty Bolton tore his calf and I moved over to the left.
That’s when I started building my footy relationship with Johnno and I’ve been on that side of the field ever since. The understanding we’ve got and my ability to read what he’s going to do and run off him to score tries obviously became a massive part of my career.
None of that would’ve ever happened if I’d stayed at Penrith. I can only wonder how things would’ve turned out. Some things are meant to be and you’ve just got to run with that. Even dislocating my hip in 2014 – it gave me the chance to spend quality time at home with Archie when he was a little baby while I was recovering.
I could’ve easily been a Cowboy from start to finish. But I wouldn’t have grown as much as a person from experiencing life in different places. And I would never have met many of the people along the way who have become lifelong friends.
I won the Club Person of the Year award at the Cowboys in my first year back. It’s like a good bloke award. I think it was recognition that I’d matured a bit after being a young rat running around Townsville my first time around.
Playing footy isn’t just about what happens on the field. It’s about representing the club off the field as well. It’s something I really enjoy. People can smell bullshit. They know if you’re being genuine when you talk to them.
When they talk to me, they get me and they appreciate that.
Happiest of birthdays to this hot Mumma/wifeeee! 🎉🎉🎉This is why she lives and is her at her happiest.. 😊 Can get a little crazy at times with you… and the boys 😳 but somehow you always dominate and make it work! We love you very much and hope you have a good day today and we'll have cake day all together one day soon. Lots of love from me and the boys!! ❤️❤️❤️ @tenillecooper
THE JT PARTNERSHIP
People ask me where JT and I got our understanding from. Whether it’s practice or intuition.
It’s a bit of both.
We spend a bit of time working on it at training but not heaps. We spend a lot of time together as friends and that helps a lot.
We’ve been playing alongside each other for a long time, and because I’ve seen him react over and over again to different situations, I can read pretty well what he’s going to do according to what’s in front of us. Then it’s a matter of me reacting to him.
Like everyone else, I’ve been in awe of what he does. I know that if I put myself in the right space he’ll usually find me with the ball.
The Cowboys obviously haven’t fared well this season. We’ve been a bit clunky as a team. We’ve still been able to find the groove at times, but not quite often enough.
That’s when potential narrow wins become narrow losses. It costs you.
JT has copped some criticism and he doesn’t deserve that. People expect him to be a 10 out of 10 every week and if he’s an eight-and-a-half, they think he’s had a shit game.
The weight of expectation has been on his shoulders for so long and he has never complained about that. But then if things go wrong people always look at him first and that’s just unfair. It’s also unrealistic. He’s still the bloke you want with the ball in his hands in pivotal situations.
I think the way he has dealt with the criticism is pretty classy. He’s tried to rise above it and continue doing his job.
Hopefully, we can get out of the rut we’re in and finish it well for him.
That’s the least a champion like him deserves.