Cook links with UFC champ to tackle de­fen­sive flaws

Central and North Burnett Times - - SPORT - — – Nick Wal­shaw

RABBITOHS hooker Damien Cook is con­tin­u­ing his pri­vate train­ing ses­sions with Aus­tralian UFC champ Robert Whit­taker in a move that could re­sult in him be­come the great­est tack­ling No.9 in the NRL.

While he may have se­cured his fi­nan­cial fu­ture this week, thanks to a $4.5 mil­lion ex­ten­sion at South Syd­ney, Cook will con­tinue look­ing to im­prove his game through one-on-one wrestling ses­sions at Whit­taker’s Syd­ney gym.

It has now been a year since the 27-year-old first struck up a friend­ship with the world’s No.1 mid­dleweight, who also dou­bles as a mad Souths fan.

The Red­fern rake has pre­vi­ously cred­ited the grap­pling ses­sions for help­ing him to a break­out 2018 sea­son that in­cluded rep­re­sent­ing NSW, Aus­tralia and now sign­ing a rich five-year deal.

And while Cook isn’t due back at Souths train­ing un­til af­ter Christ­mas, Whit­taker yes­ter­day con­firmed the pair was still train­ing at his Gra­cie Jiu Jitsu gym.

“And, look, I don’t want the story to be that we’re train­ing to­gether ev­ery day,” Whit­taker said. “Be­cause that just isn’t the case. But Damien comes out ev­ery now and again.

“Ob­vi­ously play­ing in the NRL, the rugby league side of things will al­ways be his fo­cus. But we just work on a few lit­tle things to­gether.

“He’s a great guy who works re­ally hard.”

De­spite be­ing a livewire strike weapon in at­tack, it was Cook’s per­ceived weak­nesses in de­fence that made him seek out Whit­taker via trainer Alex Prates, who dou­bles as Souths wrestling coach.

Ac­cord­ing to the Fox Sports Lab, Cook made 957 tack­les this past year, which was more than all but Roost­ers hooker Jake Friend (1148) and St Ge­orge Illawarra op­po­site Cameron McInnes (980).

When it comes to tackle ef­fi­ciency among the game’s busiest de­fend­ers Cook had a suc­cess rate of 90.8%.

That puts him be­hind the likes of Bris­bane No.9 An­drew McCul­lough (94.7), McInnes (92.9), Manly for­ward Jake Tr­bo­je­vic (92.6), Mel­bourne skip­per Cam Smith (92.1) and Friend (91.5).

Which is why the in­cum­bent Kan­ga­roo is con­tin­u­ing his grap­pling ses­sions with Whit­taker.

“Wrestling can re­ally help NRL play­ers de­fen­sively,” the UFC champ said. “It gives foot­ballers a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how your body bal­ances, how to ap­ply your weight, grips to con­trol you op­po­nent’s weight and bal­ance … all of that can only help in the way you tackle.

“I think it re­ally helps a rugby league player’s de­fen­sive game.”

Set to de­fend his mid­dleweight belt at UFC 234 in Mel­bourne in Fe­bru­ary, Whit­taker said he was learn­ing plenty him­self from Cook, who has taken over the Kan­ga­roos hook­ing role fol­low­ing the rep re­tire­ment of Smith.

“Oh, he’s a su­per ath­lete,” says the fighter who faces Amer­i­can Kelvin Gastelum on Fe­bru­ary 10.

“And that’s the big­gest thing I’ve re­alised since net­work­ing with guys like the South Syd­ney play­ers, I feel like I’m learn­ing more from them than they are me.”

Photo: Philip Hill­yard

HE’S GAME: Damien Cook con­tin­ues to work on his game.

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