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Dragons veteran breathes easily with new-found underdogs tag


Adrian Proszenko

Trapped … Trent Merrin offloads under pressure.

Trapped … Trent Merrin offloads under pressure. Photo: Brendan Esposito

IT USUALLY kicks in about now. With the season about to begin, the stifling pressure of expectation should be weighing down on all those wearing the Red V.

But for the first time in his illustrious 13-year career, Matt Cooper can't feel it. St George Illawarra have been all but written off by fans and punters alike. And Cooper couldn't be happier.

''It's good,'' Cooper chuckled. ''Every year we've got a lot of pressure on us.

''This year we're pretty much underdogs for the season. I'm happy with that tag - it takes a bit of pressure off us. I've been here for so long, I'm used to it.

''The young boys are going good; they don't buy into that sort of stuff. We just concentrate on what we need to do at training and on the field. If we keep working hard, we're going to be good.''

Cooper (calf) was one of four players taken off early in Friday night's Charity Shield loss to South Sydney due to injury. However, the former representative centre, Jason Nightingale (hip cork), Cameron King (concussion) and Mitch Rein (shoulder) are likely to all be fit for the opening round of the season against Melbourne. ''Overall, we have a few bumps and bruises but nothing that will stop players from training and preparing for the season ahead,'' said Dragons performance director Andrew Gray.

No other team has a tougher start to the season. They take on the reigning premiers at AAMI Park in round one, host the Broncos in round two, face bogy team Canberra away in round four before taking on the Sharks and Newcastle.

Even if he has his full complement to choose from, St George Illawarra coach Steve Price admits he has some selection headaches before finalising his best 17.

''There's definitely a number of positions up for grabs, especially the right centre and edge back-rower,'' Price said. ''There's a couple of reserves [spots] available, too. I haven't made my decision but will in the near future.''

Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire has a few selection headaches of his own, albeit pleasant ones. Bryson Goodwin performed solidly after replacing Nathan Merritt, who was dropped to feeder team North Sydney for disciplinary reasons.

''Right across the team I've got some pretty big decision to make for our first-round game,'' Maguire said.

''The way the front-rowers are playing, it's just a real competitive bunch at the moment.''

Rabbitohs captain Michael Crocker said the side, having grown accustomed to Maguire's methods, were ahead of where they were 12 months ago. ''We're a little bit ahead because we've had that full season [behind] us,'' Crocker said. ''Last year we were learning our structures and combinations and now we're pretty settled.''

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