Souths hooker battle heating up

The race is on for the coveted South Sydney No.9 jersey and former beach sprinting champion Damien Cook appears to have his nose slightly in front.  

Cook was one of the Rabbitohs' best in an otherwise dour Charity Shield, providing the side with an immediate spark from the moment he entered the fray.

To his credit, the team's starting hooker, Cameron McInnes, was more than solid, setting up John Sutton for the game's opening try, and forcing a line dropout with a well-placed grubber. 

Cook was full of praise for his 22-year-old teammate, crediting him for Souths' solid start.

"Cam is really good at that," Cook said following his side's 18-14 win over the Dragons.

"He's got a real level head on him. He knows what we've got to do at the start of the game. He really controlled the ruck, so it was really good."

After replacing McInnes with 10 minutes to go in the first-half, Cook wasted little time in making an impact on the game.

With practically his first touch, Cook darted out of dummy-half, slicing through some over-eager ruck defence, before torching Peter Mata'utia on the outside. 

The 24-year-old looked certain to score, but was instead met by some heroic goal-line defence from Dragons fullback Kurt Mann. 

"He's a great player. I was running down to the corner and he didn’t give me much room, other than to go for the corner, so he did really well there. Wish I got it over, but well done to him," Cook quipped. 

The fresh-legged reserve continued to test the Dragons with scoots from dummy-half, as well as several well-timed kicks early in the count.

His off-the-cuff style of attack almost paid dividends when a spontaneous chip-and-chase was spilled by Mann, but nothing came from the ensuing possession. 

In a stint lasting just shy of 40 minutes, Cook out-pointed McInnes in most categories. However, the former Bulldog was quick to praise his new teammate, saying their rivalry was bringing out the best in both men.

"Me and Cam work really hard together," said Cook on their blossoming combination. 

"At training as well, we're really hard on each other and I think we have a good combo at training and hopefully we can get that on the field as well."

While McInnes started in Saturday evening's win, there are no guarantees he will get first crack when the season proper kicks off in less than three weeks' time.  

Cook knows next week's trial against the Gold Coast Titans could decide his place in the side come round one. 

"That just depends on how we play during the trials and week to week. Madge [Coach Michael Maguire] gives us 50/50 [time on the field] and whoever is playing better gets the shot," he told NRL.com.

"Hopefully we can both be in the side. Cam's a great player as well, and as much as I want to be in the side, I think he should be there as well."

Whichever way coaching staff decide to go, there is no doubting Cook's ability to play 80 minutes if required.

Filling in for the injured Michael Lichaa at the backend of 2015, the energetic hooker played 80 minutes in the five games he played.

While his attacking impetus provided the highlights, his four tries were overshadowed by impressive defensive contributions, which saw him average just shy of 50 tackles per game. 

But while Cook is the new dog on the block, McInnes shapes as the logical heir to fill the void left by Issac Luke. 

The Botany Rams junior played 13 games for the Bunnies last season, and although he never played the full 80, his minutes gradually increased as the season wore on. 

South Sydney coach Michael Maguire is excited at the prospect of having two quality hookers at his disposal. 

Cook and McInnes took part in the Auckland Nines, with both players scoring tries in an otherwise underwhelming campaign for the 2015 champions. 

"They had some great combinations in the Nines…I'm looking forward to next week to give them another opportunity in our next trial, and then from there we'll have to make the decisions," Maguire said.

"I've got ideas about which way I'll go. But it's up to the players. We're a performance-based team, and we talk about that amongst each other and the senior players, so we'll make those decisions after the trial."