WHEN still a teenager, Matt Cook signed for Bradford Bulls as an England Schoolboys centre of some repute yet now, aged 30, he loves nothing better than churning out the hard yards at prop for buoyant Castleford Tigers.
It is some transition but, given his versatility and ability to adapt – he was also an England rugby union Under 19s flanker and the national Under 17s discus champion – it is perhaps no surprise he has worked his way so successfully into the unforgiving middle.
Cook, who hopes to help maintain Castleford’s 100 per cent winning start to the season when they head to Widnes Vikings tomorrow, admits there is no turning back having evolved into an athletic front-row via a lengthy stint at second-row.
“I did debut for Bradford against St Helens in 2005 as a centre,” he recalled to The Yorkshire Post.
“But I am an out-and-out prop now. It would be very, very rare if I even got used in the second-row again.
“We will be desperate if we put me back there.
“If I’m being really honest, I remember sitting there with Lynchy halfway through pre-season having a coffee and I just turned and said to him ‘the feeling I’ve got with this team now I haven’t had since I left Bradford.’Castleford Tigers’ Matt Cook
“I’m in the middle and that’s where I like it; I enjoy it the engine room, in the thick of it all.”
And he is particularly enjoying it for this Castleford side who are the talk of the competition following their thrilling displays so far, not least a memorable 66-10 rout of derby rivals Leeds Rhinos last time out.
Could this be the year Tigers finally win their maiden league championship?
For Cook, who like team-mate Andy Lynch, was at Bradford when they claimed the 2005 Super League title, he sees no reason why not.
“If I’m being really honest, I remember sitting there with Lynchy halfway through pre-season having a coffee and I just turned and said to him ‘the feeling I’ve got with this team now I haven’t had since I left Bradford’.
“Me and him were there in that 2005 year when Bradford went on to win the Grand Final.
“Hopefully, we can go do something special this year, too.
“There’s still a long season ahead but I do believe we can do something amazing as a team and it is exciting thinking about it.”
It would certainly be fitting for Cook if he did secure some silverware; although he played, like fellow prop Lynch, in the 2006 World Club Challenge success over Wests Tigers, he did not feature in that earlier Grand Final glory and his time in the Bulls’ first-team largely coincided with their gradual decline.
Cook then joined Hull KR in 2010 and, after two seasons at Craven Park, moved onto London Broncos whom he captained before returning north to Castleford where he is now embarking on his third campaign.
Having played in the same Bradford side as the likes of Shontayne Hape, Lesley Vainikolo and Iestyn Harris, though, he concedes this vibrant Castleford team is currently up there with it in terms of style and finesse.
“Confidence is definitely high,” he added.
“We’ve just got to make sure we stay grounded and not get arrogant with that.
“We’ve had three good wins and it’s a real good start to the season but it’s a long, long season still to go.
“This is only round four. We have to make sure we do all the little bits right and work hard to hopefully do the flashy stuff off the back of it.
“It’s going to be a very tough challenge at Widnes.
“They went to Catalans last week and earned a draw and Wigan the week before that was real close (28-26 defeat),” he added.
“They are really fighting and having some tough battles so it won’t be easy.
“We’ll have to be at our best to get two points.”
And any regrets at not following the union path having once been on Saracens’ books?
“No, none at all,” insisted Cook, who was raised in Northampton to northern parents, his dad Les having played league for Oldham.
“I still enjoy league more and I’ve made a lot of close friends in this sport.
“Although my bank balance may have looked better if I’d gone the other way...!”
Coach Daryl Powell makes two changes to the Tigers side that routed Leeds Rhinos last Thursday week.
Will Maher and Alex Foster drop out of last week’s squad, making way for Ben Roberts and Luke Million to return.