For the first time in a very long time, South Sydney’s Damien Cook has something prove.

The journeyman days he endured before arriving at Redfern are just a memory now, buried under a pile of New South Wales and Australian jerseys and slashing Rabbitohs highlights.

At 31, he has been counted as one of rugby league’s top hookers for long enough that his exclusion from Australia’s World Cup squad raised a few eyebrows.

It was the first time since his emergence as South Sydney’s top hooker five years ago that Cook was overlooked for a major representative squad with Queenslander’s Ben Hunt and Harry Grant preferred for the Kangaroos.

“It would have been a dream to play in that World Cup. I was disappointed not to make the side. I really wanted it, but after a couple of days I had to get over it,” Cook said.

“I couldn’t let it ruin my off-season [nor] my time with my family, and I had to embrace the pre-season to turn it into a positive.

“I watched every game and it made me feel better to see Benny and Harry kill it. If I’d been sitting here and they weren’t playing well … but they won the World Cup. That’s what’s most important.”

With Grant, Hunt and fellow New South Wales hooker Api Koroisau all making legitimate claims to be rugby league’s best hooker, life is crowded at the top for Cook.

However, while he’s hell-bent on winning the green-and-gold jersey back, there’s a more-immediate silver lining to his exclusion from the squad that could propel him to an even higher level.

Damien Cook passing from dummy half for the Rabbitohs against the Roosters in the NRL preliminary final.
Damien Cook has been one of the top hookers in rugby league for several years. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Because of rep duties or seasons being extended due to COVID-19, Cook hasn’t had a full pre-season in almost half a decade.

The last time he did get to put in all the sweltering summer work was in the lead-up to the 2018 season, the breakout year that catapulted him to stardom.

It might not sound like much of an edge, but when you’re aiming for a premiership — like South Sydney will be this season — every inch counts.

“I’m feeling the difference. Last year was so interrupted with COVID and the years before that I’d always had rep footy at the end of the year,” Cook said.

“You always dread the pre-season, but it’s feeling really good to get a few weeks in before Christmas.

“You get confidence [in] getting yourself to a certain standard, especially as you get older and you learn where you need to be and where your fitness levels should be.

“That might not mean anything once the season starts, it just means I can put my best foot forward.”

If Cook’s performance in last Saturday’s Charity Shield win over the Dragons is anything to go by, it’ll end up meaning plenty.

He was superb in the club’s 42-24 victory, even without displaying his dynamic running game as he accumulated two try assists and three line break assists.

Cook is hopeful the performance can spring the Rabbitohs into a strong start to their campaign, something that’s eluded them in recent times.

South Sydney haven’t won a season opener since 2019 and dropped three of their first four games last year.

“We want to get off to a fast start here. It’s something we haven’t done the past couple of years,” Cook said.

“There’s a certain way we want to play, a process we want to go through and, as long as we’re disciplined with that, we can work through that run we have in the first five rounds.

“Sometimes we’ve overplayed our hand, but we just need to stick to what works for us and not leave our run too late. We don’t want to put too much pressure on that back end of the season because it’s a long year.”