HIS mind is willing and his body is able - enough to convince Matt Cooper that playing beyond this year is not out of the question. Having survived what St George Illawarra players have described as the toughest pre-season in years, Cooper hinted thoughts of joining fellow Red V stalwarts Ben Hornby and Dean Young in retirement were premature.
''I had some surgery at the end of last year just to fix up minor injuries I had throughout [last] year,'' Cooper said. ''It's been great and I've had a great pre-season.''
Pressed on whether his body was capable of carrying him into next year and beyond, the seven-Test veteran said: ''At the moment, yeah, it does. Ask me that question in June or July and I might have a different answer. [But] at the moment the body feels really good and I feel like I could play a couple of more seasons. It's too early to tell and obviously come mid-year I'm going to have to make that decision.''
Cooper's desire to ask for a contract extension if his often injury-plagued body allows would help offset the Dragons' thinning experience stocks. St George Illawarra watched all-time games leader Hornby (273 games) and premiership-winning utility Young (209 games) hang up the boots, while the hard-nosed Beau Scott left for Newcastle over the summer.
If he was to embark on a 15th season in the NRL, the 33-year-old Cooper, a veteran of 235 appearances, would also have the chance to usurp Hornby's record.
Cooper said the club had already unearthed a number of willing leaders in the absence of Hornby and Young. ''There was a couple of years ago when Shaun Timmins, Trent Barrett and Luke Bailey left,'' Cooper said. ''That was a bit of a change. This year with Dean and Ben going there's a new group of leaders stepping up.
''The likes of Brett Morris, Jason Nightingale and Dan Hunt - players like those blokes have really stepped up this year and have turned into great leaders.''
The Dragons will begin their campaign with a trial against North Queensland in Cairns next Saturday.