Cooper Johns watched the ‘Manly Seven’ saga in the middle of 2022 like most everyone else: from the outside looking in and making his own assumptions. Schisms, divisions, where there’s smoke there must be hell fire, right?
Yet since being signed on a one-year, train-and-replacement contract in November – which led to tidy trial form and in turn to his club debut at 4 Pines Park last Saturday in the 31-6 win over Canterbury Bulldogs – Johns told the Beaches Champion that he’s been proven wrong.
“They’ve obviously been criticised a fair bit in the media the last 12 months,” Johns said at a golf-themed sponsor’s do at 4 Pines Park on Wednesday. “And I came here probably believing the same thing as the fans and the media believed.
“But since I’ve been here … I wouldn’t say it’s ‘surprised’ me but it’s definitely proved me wrong just how close the group is, how connected the group is.
“I think ‘Seibs’ [coach Anthony Seibold] wanted to really show that to the world. And I think we’ve done that this last month, through the trials and through round one.
“We’re really excited; there’s a real belief we can win this comp together,” Johns said.
In round 19 of last year, a must-win game against Sydney Roosters at 4 Pines Park, seven players Manly refused to play in protest against the rainbow theme on the ‘pride jersey’.
The Sea Eagles, which had been chugging along relatively nicely, even without superstar fullback Tom Trbojevic, then fell of a cliff and lost seven games straight.
The club circled wagons. Everyone had an opinion. Coach Des Hasler ‘came to the rescue’ with a monologue at a press conference and apologised on the club’s behalf “for a significant mistake made by the Manly Sea Eagles Football Club.”
He was trying to save the place. Make peace. Club bosses read it as critique and sacked him. Stay in your lane, coach.
Johns, though, said it’s all good today.
“There’s no division among the playing group, definitely not.
“And I think that we’re starting to show that; people are starting to believe that through our actions on the field and what we’re doing away from it.
“It’s exciting for the Manly club,” Johns said.
Johns attended St Augustine’s College, just across Alfred Road from 4 Pines Park. He grew up in Collaroy, played junior rugby league for Narraweena Hawks and captained Manly’s SG Ball Cup side in 2017.
He has played 11 NRL games for Melbourne Storm.
On Saturday at 4 Pines Park Johns, 23, enjoyed something of a homecoming when he ran out in front of 14,672 people in the Sea Eagles No.6 jumper made famous by Bob Fulton, Cliff Lyons and Kieran Foran.
He told the Beaches Champion he’d never played in an atmosphere like it.
“Mum and dad, all my mates in the crowd, it was awesome, eh.
“I’d never played in an atmosphere like that. I’ve played at Suncorp and AAMI Park, big stadiums … but there’s something about Brookie.
“It’s a suburban ground but you can fit 20,000 in it.
“It was an awesome atmosphere,” Johns said.
Johns acquitted himself quite nicely on Saturday, playing a complementary role to the established stars. There were no ‘big’ plays. There was nothing too flash. The pivot’s work was understated and good.
That’s how he likes it.
“I had a couple of good trials and coming into this game I didn’t want to overplay my hand. It was my first time playing with ‘Turbo’ [Trbojevic], ‘Crokes’ [Lachlan Croker] and ‘Chez’ [Daly Cherry-Evans], obviously they didn’t play the trials.
“I did what I could to help them. They’re on the wicket they are because they’re superstars of the game. I just wanted to do my job to help them do theirs.
“It was a really good team performance. I thought our defence was a massive highlight. One try off a kick. It’s something we’ve modelled our whole game on this year. It’s something we’ve spoken about: winning games off defence,” Johns said.
Star Bulldogs recruit and hard charger Viliame Kikau was well held by Manly’s defence but Johns didn’t come into contact with him all match.
“Thank God,” Johns jokes. “I’ve played him a couple of times when I was down at Melbourne. Not fun coming up against ‘Kiks’.
“But Chez and Haumole [Olakau’atu] did a really good job on him. Getting into him early, being physical.
“Really good players like that don’t like it when they feel like their time and space is taken away from them. I felt that right edge did a really good job containing him,” Johns said.
The Sea Eagles have the bye this weekend before a round three blockbuster against Parramatta Eels on Thursday 16 March. The talented Josh Schuster will likely be back and one assumes in line to take Johns’s No.6 jumper.
Coach Seibold has options to keep Johns in the XVII. Johns plans to keep on keeping on.
“I’ll just try to keep doing my job, really. Keep winning games, always helps.
“I know ‘Schuie’ is coming back and he’s a big in for the team, no matter what Seibs decides to do. He’s definitely an asset to our team.
“So no matter what happens I’ll keep having a good attitude and keep putting my hand up to get picked. Keep doing what I can for the boys,” Johns said.