Damien Cook, Josh Hodgson, Risk and Going All In

BY DAN

Damien Cook, one of the best hookers in the game, extended his time in Redfern for a further five years. The premium payment – reportedly $4.5 million, or about 900k a year, puts his salary in the same stratosphere as his play in 2018 deserved. This decision carries its share of risk for the Bunnies and there’s been no half-measure here. South Sydney are all in on Damien Cook. 

This guy. This is the guy. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright) 

It’s been a whirlwind year for Damian Cook. From fighting the memory of Robbie Farah for time as hooker under Michael Maguire, Cook turned 2018 into his personal plaything, dominating at both NRL and Origin with his quick heels. His success was so ubiquitous that by the end of the season it became a running joke to mock commentators when they mentioned his upbringing as a beach sprinter. We all knew, because we’d all seen him play, seen him burn opposition forwards around the ruck, and heard every commentator say the same damn thing. His play was as exhilarating as the play-call was stale. 

So after tearing a hole in Rugby League at the highest level, it’s hardly a surprise to see Souths look to lock him up in the long-term. It’s always hard to tell how much people are getting paid because the NRL doesn’t publish official salaries, but it seems this pay day puts Cook at the very top end of earners in the NRL. At his position he is likely only eclipsed in pay by Cameron Smith.

After all the dramas that Cook went in earning the full-time job at Souths, it’s nice to see his hard work and talent get the reward it deserves. But this deal is not without risk for the Bunnies. The simple reason is that pace doesn’t last forever. 

Cook’s premier skill – as noted by so many commentators – is his pace. He only had seven try assists in 2018 (0.25 a game) and 9 line break assits (0.36 per game). For an Origin and Australian representative player that seems low – for example it is less than James Segeyaro, and equal with Michael Lichaa and Jake Friend.

But Cook’s work isn’t done in the mould that Cameron Smith has made famous. Instead his work is done by sniffing a gap, turning on the afterburners and leaving everyone in his dust. It’s the style of yesteryear, if only Boxhead Walters could keep pace with the Roadrunner. Cook averaged more than 100 metres a game (per NRL.com) and more than 11.7 metres per run (per FoxSports), he also led the league in dummy half runs with 173, nearly 50 more than the next most (Cameron McInnes with 125 if you’re wondering). 

Cook will be 32 by the end of this contract, and hopefully still as quick as he is today. There is evidence around that suggests athletic pace drops off in your early 30s, and while training can reduce that fall-off, in elite sport the margins are small. There is a risk that his pace won’t stand up, and that Cook will have to find a new way to be effective, or risk being more burden than beast. 900k for Cook today is full pay for full value. But if his performance drops with his pace then that money starts to look like the last years of Robbie Farah’s contract with Souths (i.e. painful). 

The good news is Cook knows this, telling Adrian Proszenko of The Sydney Morning Herald that: 

In attack, I’ve had some joy with my running game this year but I want to get the other parts of my game right, like game management, something I feel has improved a lot. I want to continue to bring my kicking game in to take pressure off the halves, always work on the little things

Whether he can do that remains to be seen. But the situation as is provides an interesting conundrum. You have to pay Cook what he’s worth right now, but the years put on the contract increase the risk. I doubt Souths could have reduced either the money or the years and kept Cook happy.  So it’s not really a situation to avoid. Just to note, and hope it doesn’t apply to you. 

***

The Raiders have avoided this challenge so far. Josh Hodgson fell into Canberra’s lap because they offered more playing time than other opportunities. They’ve extended his stay in Canberra twice, the most recent at the end of 2017 meaning Hodgson would stay in Canberra until the end of 2022 at least, the year before Cook’s contract ends, when he’ll similarly be 33. 

This guy is also the guy (Karleen Minney)

Hodgson doesn’t present the same immediate risk that Cook does. I doubt many would argue his speed was an asset. More in the Cameron Smith mould, his game is almost entirely predicated on deception and creativity around the ruck. His 13 try assists in 11 games in 2018 led the NRL on a per game basis according to FoxSports. He doesn’t burn through the ruck like Cook. On the chance occasion he does take a run (just 3.4 times a game according to FoxSports), his 7.6 metres per run are more about keeping the defence honest, or sensing an opportunity to send someone bigger or faster through a hole. As Hodgson ages, it’s unlikely that his skill level will deteriorate as Cook’s pace might. 

However, Cook’s contract does have ramifications for Hodgson, and the Green Machine can’t escape entirely. Four years is a long way away, but it’s not inconceivable that Hodgson will be asking for money similar to Cook come end of 2022. Cook has indeed confirmed the baseline for how much elite rakes should be paid.

Suddenly the Raiders will be faced with the problem. While Hodgson’s old man game is hardly likely to fall-off before he’s 33, what comes after that? Danny Buderus was done at 35. Steve Walters was done at 33. Robbie Farah was done at 34 (well actually about 31 but let’s be generous). Can the Raiders afford to pay Hodgson for what might only be peak performance for a portion of his payout? 

Well they might look to the risk the Bunnies just took, and make the same move. Yeah it’s a risk. But when you’ve got elite talent, you have to go all in. 

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