James Cooper and his North Tamworth front-row partner Shane Wadwell ran onto passes early in the second half against Narrabri last Sunday as though they were being chased by zombies.
The two tries that resulted from those grunt explosion – one to each man – extinguished the fight in Narrabri like a kidney punch.
They would have also eased any concerns North Tamworth may have felt over the departure of exciting teenage props Alec Cocking and Jack Cameron following last season’s grand final win over Narrabri, the side’s fourth straight premiership.
For Cooper, it was his second start at prop at Norths. For his former back-row partner Wadwell, it was the first. They will again pack down in the front-row when the Bears meet Gunnedah at Jack Woolaston Oval on Sunday, in what could be the first dress rehearsal leading to a grand final showdown between the sides.
The steel reinforcement Cooper and Wadwell supplied to Norths’ guts against Narrabri was what Bears captain-coach Scott Blanch was after following the shock loss to Kootingal-Moonbi the previous round.
The Blues led 14-12 at halftime, but capitulated following Wadwell and Cooper’s close-range tries.
Cooper, the CEO of NIAS, said: “We [he and Wadwell] had a bit of a running joke as far as trying to compete with each other in the middle of the park. And we set a bit of a challenge in that second half to each other to come on and try and influence the game in some way.”
He added: “It makes it easier when you’ve got blokes like Scott Blanch, whose obviously the focus for a side in defence, because he’s really strong in attack and a real danger.
‘Obviously Chinny’s [Wadwell] a real target as well in the front-row, so it’s just good to play around him, I suppose.”
The Bears dominated Gunnedah in the major semi-final last season but the Bulldogs have recruited well in the off-season, signing brothers Reece and Hayden Jaeger as well as KC Edmonds and Jordy Ford.
Reece Jaeger played under-20s with the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney, while Edmonds spent time in the Knights’ junior system.
Cooper said Gunnedah were “the best side in the comp on paper” – echoing Hayden Jaeger’s comment earlier this week.
“I guess this weekend will be the biggest challenge,” Cooper said. “They’ve got a really big pack, Gunnedah, and they’ve signed a few players and brought a few home. So hopefully we can compete with them.”