Bulldogs hooker Damien Cook has been punching well above his weight in defence since taking over the blue and white No.9 jersey from the injured Michael Lichaa and has revealed the secret to his impressive habit of stoping far bigger men in their tracks.
Simply – attempting to stop Canterbury man-mountains like Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard at training.
Cook has racked up tackle counts of 49, 48, 45 and a whopping 67 last week against the Dragons since being recalled to first grade after Lichaa broke an ankle against the Titans in Round 23.
And while the former beach sprinter's zippy pace – which has helped him to three tries and one stunning past-the-dead-ball-line try assist – has helped him dominate highlight reels, it is the tackling technique on the 86-kilogram, 178-centimetre rake that has most impressed good judges.
This week Cook told NRL.com that his defence was actually a weak spot for him when he arrived at Belmore, but had no choice to improve once he found himself trying to halt the likes of 125-kilogram behemoth Sam Kasiano at training.
"It was probably a weakness of my game coming into NSW Cup a couple of years ago so obviously I really had to work on that coming from the [Illawarra] Cutters," Cook said.
"Once I came here last year, we've got great coaching staff here and they've really helped me work on my defensive game. Obviously you have to tackle these big boys every day at training so that definitely helps a bit.
"We try and challenge ourselves every day at training, especially in the opposed sessions where there's a bit of contact as well. You try and challenge yourself against the big guys.
"Kasiano's one of the biggest in the game so you try and handle him as much as possible and it definitely helps your defensive game."
Given Cook gives away the better part of a 40 kilogram weight advantage to the monster Kiwi, can he actually stop him?
"I slow him down!" Cook laughed. "He's a big boy so I definitely need some assistance there."
Cook said the coaching staff were good at helping players find the right balance between intensity at training while making sure none of their prized players do a serious injury.
"At the right times, especially in pre season at the right time of the week there would be a hard hit out. The coaches would make sure to draw a line and say 'that's enough' [before anyone got hurt] so there's definitely a level of intensity it gets up to but definitely not to do anything silly to injure anyone," he said.
With the Canterbury NSW Cup squad training with the first grade players all year, Cook is no stranger to Hasler's coaching style, having effectively played under him for two years now.
"We all train together, do the same drills, and we obviously train against each other as well. Des and the other coaches are very helpful and they don't just focus on the first grade. I had a lot to do with him last year as well," Cook said.
The 24-year-old has doubled his tally of NRL games played over the past month since taking over from Lichaa and is starting to feel like he belongs in the top grade.
"I'm feeling good and I've settled in; obviously the quality of players I've got around me, the forward pack, training with these guys every week made the transition very easy for me. I'm just happy to be playing a few games in a row and showing myself that I am capable of playing first grade week in week out," Cook said.
Having played his first ever NRL finals match last week in the golden point elimination final win over his old club, Cook said it is exciting for himself and his family that he is now playing regular first grade.
"I never thought I'd be playing finals footy this year in the NRL so that's a bonus and I'm just enjoying being a part of it," he said.
"Games don't get much bigger than this [weekend], coming up against the minor premiers in a sudden death game. We're going to have to be right on our game if we're going to beat them this weekend."
Cook has benefitted from some calm senior heads around him with the likes of captain James Graham and senior forwards Aiden Tolman and Pritchard no strangers to this time of the year.
"They've all played some big game footy and they know how to win in those games too. It's about playing our game as well and getting our things right," Cook said
"We know from past games that our game plan will win games and we just need to stick to that. Obviously everyone gets excited for finals footy and I know it's a bit clichéd but it's just another game and hopefully we can get the win this weekend."
This article first appeared on NRL.com