Wrestling sessions with UFC champ behind Cook's rise
Rookie NSW No.9 Damien Cook is tipped to breathe new life into the Blues ruck play after personal wrestling sessions with Rob 'The Reaper' Whittaker helped power him into the Origin arena.
Cook's speed as a former champion beach sprinter has caught the collective eye of the rugby league world this season, but it's the extra starch in his defence that got him across the line as hooker for next Wednesday's series opener at the MCG.
Targeting an 80-minute role at the Rabbitohs in the pre-season but knowing his 88-kilo frame would have opposition forwards sizing him up as cannon fodder, Cook sought out South Sydney's wrestling coach Alex Prates for extra work over the summer.
Also on Prates' roll call at his Alexandra jiu jitsu gym is current middleweight UFC champ Whittaker, who also doubles as a diehard Rabbitohs fan.
Which meant Cook was tussling on the mat with the real deal soon enough.
"I thought (Whittaker) wasn't going to be there but when I turned up he was wrestling with all the young kids as well," Cook said.
"He understands what he's been through to get to where he is, but it was interesting to roll around and wrestle with a UFC champ.
"There were a couple of games where it was a 'king of the middle' sort of thing. If you won, you stayed on.
"Not that I went any good against him, I didn't beat him. He had it over most of the boys... I thought it was going to be like wrestling sessions for footy, but it was more the jujitsu style of session.
"It's very hard and credit to those boys who do that sport and get in to the ring."
Whittaker squares up for his first title defence against Cuban Yoel Romero next Sunday in Chicago, while four days earlier Cook will stare down a Queensland pack featuring man mountains Dylan Napa (113 kilos), Josh Papalii (112) and Coen Hess (110).
All year Cook has been picked out by rival NRL forward packs, to the tune of 510 tackles – more than any other player in the Telstra premiership – at 42.5 a game.
That workload bodes well considering Blues predecessor Nathan Peats, as honest a toiler in the middle as they come, churned through a series high 150 tackles last year.
Cook's point of difference in the middle is his running around the ruck, but long before claiming the NSW No.9 jumper, the 26-year-old identified his work without the ball as the key to an 80-minute performance.
One he's happy to replicate if needed by coach Brad Fittler, given bench utility Tyrone Peachey can cover backline and back-row positions as well as the hooking duties.
"I like to keep improving all parts of my game and defence was a big one of mine," Cook said.
"Being in the middle and getting a lot of traffic, if I did want to improve my game and play the 80 minutes I needed to make sure my defence was improved from the past.
"Those extra little wrestling sessions, I can say they're paying off.
"Obviously it's a different game when you hear from all the past players. I guess I won't understand that until I actually play.
"I know it's different at club level but I have been playing the 80 minutes all year, so if that's what I've got to do, I'm more than happy to do that job.
"We haven't really spoken about that yet."
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Bronze tickets available from $49 here