Posted: Monday 29th June 2020

Cook can’t wait to come back

Matt Cook reflects on his career so far, his six years as a Tiger and working on his comeback following not only an injury but the COVID-19 pandemic too.

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By Andrea Mena

This article is taken from June's edition of Castleford Tigers' monthly magazine ROAR which is available to read in full, for free, HERE.

The rugby league world was delighted to see our great sport back in action at the end of May with the NRL gracing television screens across the world as the competition returned to action after their season suspension in response to coronavirus.

Shortly before restrictions were put in place here in the UK back in March, ROAR caught up with Cookie as he updated us on how he was nursing an injury looked back at his rugby league career which has spanned well over a decade. Matt was preparing hard for his sixth season in Cas colours before he was forced for a spell on the side lines just following on from the team’s pre-season training weekend away.

“In the first training session after we did the 3 Peaks Challenge at the tail end of the training session I pulled my left calf muscle and, at the time we didn’t think it was too serious, so we treated the symptoms. It got to about 6 weeks in and I was almost ready to go back into the team for full training but then, unfortunately, it went again on me. Very annoying, and then we got it properly looked at again and I was told to scale back on the rehab and affectively start again,” said Cook.

Eyeing a comeback after a couple of months hard work in rehabilitation, the prop forward believed in normal circumstances he would have been ready to return to the field quite soon after the Tigers’ last game against St Helens, whether that would have been for the First Team or Reserves.

“I suppose it would’ve been down to the boss and how urgent he would have wanted me back in the team. If he would have wanted me to have got a few more weeks under my belt full training with the boys and, you know, get my hands back on the ball for a bit.”

At 33-years of age Cook is no doubt one of the senior members of the Tigers squad, particularly in the pack, and after signing a one-year contract extension back in April of 2019 he is eager to put in big performances once rugby league returns and earn another extension.

“It would be great to play for another season the priority for me now is just to get back on the field this season.

“Back end of last year I felt great! I still felt like I was doing a good job still and able to play at the top level and right at the start of pre-season, I felt great coming back in for the hard slog that pre-season is. So, the injury has been frustrating, and it does make maybe you doubt yourself at times.

“Hopefully, I can prove to the coaches and myself that I have another year in me at the top-flight with Castleford Tigers.”

All our lives have now been dramatically changed by the unprecedented times the world is experiencing, but luckily the Tigers are in good hands and have a dedicated coaching team that prepared them well for training at home. Maintain high fitness levels during the crisis was always going to be a challenge and for Matt, he was fortunate enough to get his hands on a WattBike too. Add to that his weights and other gym equipment, Cookie has quite the garage/gym setup.

“Our Head of Strength & Conditioning Jamie Bell, and the other conditioning staff including the medical staff and the coaches, worked tirelessly to make sure everyone’s got their own individual programme that actually fits in with whatever equipment they might actually have.”

With long breaks away from teammates and coaches undoubtedly there could be a worry that the current pandemic may hinder players performance and fitness levels, but Matt believes he and his teammates have the self-discipline to keep up a high work ethic in the Tigers camp.

“I think there probably will be a loss of fitness mainly down to the lack of the competitive side, but most players tend to look after themselves pretty well in the off-season. So, I don’t know I reckon all the boys will manage to tick over and keep in very good shape.”

Cook has had successful spells at a handful of clubs during his career including Hull Kingston Rovers and London Broncos, both who he speaks highly off but it was at Bradford Bulls where his youth career began, rubbing shoulders with some Super League greats such as Lesley Vainikolo and Andy Lynch.

“Legends absolute legends of the game, back then the players for the Bulls were phenomenal across the whole 1-13 and they were all massive as well. Lesley Vainikolo on the wing he was like having a prop forward on your edge but the whole team were all superstars it also made it very challenging to get into that team.

“I was extremely raw as a rugby league player when I was at Bradford as a kid coming up having started in rugby union. I had to really pick it up as quick as I possibly could because it was pretty cut-throat to be honest, in terms of just how good all the players at that club were during that time and just what it was like back then.”

Before fellow prop Andy Lynch and Matt played together at Castleford, they also were part of the Bulls pack too and whilst they may often make backhanded compliments to one another, particularly around a cup of coffee, they enjoyed playing together on the pitch.

“He’s without a doubt a legend in the sport and what a workhorse he was, I got the pleasure of playing with him at Bradford in them ruthless days with the changing room banter and then again at Castleford.

“It’s a two-way street with the snidey comments with Lynch and he’s living down under now and I hear stories that he’s just as tight with the old wallet as he was back here. I hope he reads this. I can’t wait for the messages off him!”

It has been seven years now since Daryl Powell was first appointed as Head Coach and the Tigers have enjoyed many successful seasons under his leadership and the building blocks were being laid for a successful team, which was one of the main reason that Cookie chose to sign with Castleford back in 2014 ready for his first Fords campaign in 2015.

“ I’ve learnt a lot over the last five and a bit years at Cas just in terms of the way Powelly and the rest of the coaching staff like us to play the game, and the brand of rugby league that we play and the structure and our style.

“He’s taught me a lot about the game and also, developed me a lot as a player and then you have the field side of it, the one-to-one coaching, the confidence is another one as well which has come on massively I think under Powell, the team as a whole has.”

The high point so far of Daryl Powell’s era at Castleford has been the 2017 season which of course included the winning of the League Leaders Shield.

“In that year there was something definitely special in the room, in terms of the team we had out there and the way we wanted to play and you need a lot of luck as well throughout the season. That was probably one of the first years, and probably one of the only years, throughout my whole time at Cas so far where we were pretty fortunate on the injury front as well.”

Following on from such a successful season was always going to be tough but Matt believes that the Club has continued to improve, impress and build on from the success of the 2017 campaign and that the Tigers have become a side that can truly fight at the top end of the Super League competition.

“I think the last couple of years we’ve done really well to make sure we are still up and around that top end of the table consistently and always challenging for the silverware.

“Fingers crossed when the season gets back up and running you know we can have a season as successful if not more than 2017, but the main priority at the minute is just getting the season going again.”

Hailing from Warrington on the other side of the Pennines, Matt Cook has fully immersed himself into the Castleford culture during his time with Castleford and he really believes the ‘Classy Cas’ fans are in a league of their own.

“You come into Cas and everyone knows you and everything that’s going on with your sport, they are asking about your injuries and they know more than I know half the time about the rest of my teammates!

“It’s nice how friendly everyone is, dead happy and there is a great community spirit in the town and surrounding areas and I’m pretty sure they will all be looking after each other pretty well whilst the pandemic is going on.”

The Fords’ 2020 campaign started well with five wins from seven matches including three terrific home victories over St Helens, Wakefield, and Wigan back in Round Two, the first home match of the season. It also saw one of the Tigers most impressive performances with the team down on troops and young players Sam Hall and Lewis Peachey stepping up into the senior ranks to help seal a victory at The Jungle. Cook understands the importance of nurturing youth development sides and the Reserve grade, to improve the talent breaking through not only at our club but Super League as a whole.

“We really struggled at Cas with having the numbers for that Wigan game, we were that decimated for players with injuries you know quite a few of the younger bucks had to step up and play First Team and they did great but that left them extremely short for the Reserves you know we were relying on borrowing Keighley Cougars Reserves players to plug the gap.

“Hopefully as the grassroots rugby increases and improves and keeps going hopefully, we will have a bigger talent pool coming through, hopefully more funding to retain the players of a higher calibre too.”

This year Super League welcomed Canadian side Toronto Wolfpack for their maiden season in the sport’s top-flight, taking the place of London Broncos who were relegated back to the Championship. Cookie enjoyed a three-year spell in the capital making 64 appearances for the Broncos and adding his name to the scoresheet 11 times, the prop forward thoroughly enjoyed his time with the capital club and is a big advocate for rugby league having a presence in ‘The Big Smoke’.

“I had three years down there in London and I just threw myself fully into it whether that was just buying into the city lifestyle and embracing that, and the club I just think it’s got so much potential and it’s in the capital of our country, it should be a force to reckon with going into the future.”

Matt believes expanding the sport beyond just the North as it is sometimes viewed, is vital to see developed interest further of fans and commercial investors alike.

“I think if you can get it right down there it should be massive for the sport, there’s a lot of people down south in London that do love their rugby league. Wardy (Danny Ward) brought a great brand of rugby league there over the last few years and it was a massive shame that they got relegated last year.

“They have just got to keep building and building and everyone needs to believe in them there has to be a team down there for me and a successful one will be great for the sport in general.”

Refocusing finally back on Castleford Tigers and his excitement of getting back to action, whenever that may be, Matt Cook is certain that more victories are on the not too distant horizon for the Club.

“I do think there is more success to come and I think that if the fans keeping sticking with us and enjoy the roller coaster that it is, I am sure we will give them the full reward eventually and hopefully it will be whilst I am still a part of the Club.

“I hope everyone stays safe, I look forward to seeing everyone, enjoy the TV time!”

Whilst we may have all enjoyed watching the box sets and films on streaming services the past couple of months, we cannot wait to see Matt Cook and the rest of our beloved Tigers back in match action soon instead.