Canterbury NSW Cup hooker Damien Cook has been waiting since Round 17 last year to get his fifth NRL Telstra Premiership cap but after a longer than 12 month hiatus the speedy rake proved he belongs at the top level.
It was a season debut to remember for the 24-year-old Helensburgh junior, called up after first-choice dummy-half Michael Lichaa fractured an ankle in the early stages of last week's win over Gold Coast.
Cook opened the scoring in the ninth minute, backing up a couple of offloads from Moses Mbye and Frank Prichard in a dangerous left-side move, and set up one of the most remarkable tries of the season showing great awareness to toe ahead then retrieve the ball after an attempted Trent Hodkinson field goal was charged down for Sam Perrett to score.
In between he showed glimpses of pace from dummy half in his four runs for 26 metres and showed impressive defensive resolve despite being one of the smallest players on the field at 86 kilograms, racking up a game-high 49 tackles.
After the game Bulldogs coach Des Hasler said he knew Cook would be comfortable slotting in to first grade.
"Damien's worked really hard throughout the year, worked really hard in the off-season and been really consistent the way he's played in NSW Cup," Hasler said.
"I thought he didn't miss a beat out there tonight. He was outstanding and certainly didn't look out of place out there. He got himself involved, he came up with some big plays for us, and chased everything and tackled everything that moved. I'm really happy for him, really pleased for Damien. He did a great job tonight."
Halfback Trent Hodkinson also praised the stand-in rake, particularly for aiming up in defence against an imposing Rabbitohs pack.
"I thought Damien Cook was really good out of dummy half, he was sharp. It wasn't an easy pack to come up against for Damien defence-wise but he did really well," Hodkinson said.
Cook, who played two games for the Dragons in 2013 then two more for Canterbury last year while the State of Origin contingent was unavailable, said he'd never thought of giving up on adding to his four NRL caps.
"Never give up, never give up on playing NRL. Always stick at it," Cook said
"The good thing is, with the NSW Cup team, we've been playing really well which has allowed [me] to keep playing good footy."
He said Hasler had let him know early in the week he'd be suiting up in first grade in what was a low key conversation.
"He let me know at the start of the week. He didn't make a big deal of it. He expected me to just go from reserve grade up to first grade. It was good for him to give me the opportunity," Cook said.
"He just let me know, he obviously had my back and he believes in me. He encouraged me to just do what I've been doing in Cup. He was very encouraging."
Cook admitted it was nice to get over the line for a try early in the game and revealed the four-pointer – which came from supporting a Frank Pritchard offload – wasn't exactly out of the blue.
"Frankie told me all week to keep pushing up with him and he got one away to me," he said.
The off-contract Cook said while he currently has no club for next year he's had conversations with the club about extending his stay at Belmore.
"My contract finishes up here, but the Dogs, they've spoken to me. Des obviously said he wants to keep me around, which is good. Hopefully it just helps the matter," he said.
This article first appeared on NRL.com