Ben Cook thought his rugby league career was over.
In 2019 he suffered a serious knee injury and, as he describes it, did "just about everything you probably could do to it".
When the 2023 season kicked off he was sitting on the sideline watching mates play for Wellington before Cowboys president Graham Blackhall asked him to run the water for the first grade side.
Soon, he was back in training and the knee felt strong to make a long-awaited comeback. He then worked his way from reserve grade into first grade and now the 22-year-old is now a chance to line up in a Peter McDonald Premiership finals match next weekend.
Cook scored for the Cowboys again on Sunday as they wrapped up their regular season commitments with a 24-22 win over the Macquarie Raiders at Apex Oval.
It's something Cook himself even finds hard to believe.
"I had no intentions of coming back this year," he said.
"It wasn't until uncle 'Noot' (Blackhall) gave me a call and asked me to come over and help out and I started running water and then I was training and it felt right and the boys were behind me and gave me confidence.
"I love it. I love being back with this club and playing finals with these boys."
It was while playing for the Nyngan Tigers in 2019 when Cook seriously damaged his ACL, PCL and meniscus.
Since returning this season Cook has been playing on the wing for the Cowboys on a lethal right edge that includes boom back-rower Seaun Stanley Jr and former Australian star Blake Ferguson.
His performances have earned nothing but praise and respect from captain-coach Justin Toomey-White.
"I am so proud of that boy," Toomey-White said.
"Just to have a conversation with him earlier in the season after a horrific injury and he was on the outside while his mates were all playing football.
"He came and ran the water and was setting up our warm-up just to be a part of it and then for him to start training, then playing reserve grade and now potentially playing in a semi-final, it's kudos to him and he's a highlight of our season."
It was a Ferguson offload which led to Cook scoring a crucial second half try which levelled things up after Macquarie led 12-6 at half-time.
Ferguson soon had his moment as he broke through tackles in his own half and raced away to score and put his side in front.
The Raiders refused to go away but one missed sideline conversion from Harry Kempston proved the difference after the sides traded tries late on.
It was a match which never hit any great heights as the Cowboys were focused on purely getting through it unscathed as they were already guaranteed of third spot in the Group 11 pool and an elimination final next week.
For Macquarie, last weekend's loss to Parkes ended their finals hope but and Sunday was one more frustrating day out for a side which never found top gear in 2023.
The mood was vastly different in the Cowboys camp after what has been a stunning turnaround.
Last year the Wellington club struggled for numbers and was forced to wear the jerseys from the season prior after the loss of a host of sponsors.
There was just one win in first grade but this season Justin Toomey-White's side won nine of 14 and will host Bathurst St Pat's in one of next weekend's elimination finals.
"I love being a part of this team," Cook said.
"Especially with all these boys. We're not just footy players, we're all mates off the field and do everything together and that's what we're all about.
"We're the underdogs and there was doubt around us at the start of the season but we've really shown what we're about."
- WELLINGTON COWBOYS 24 (Tyrone Tattersall, Ben Cook, Blake Ferguson, Timmy Boney-Stewart tries; Ferguson 4 goals) defeated MACQUARIE RAIDERS 22 (Filisione Pauta, Billy Gilbert, CJ Ralph, Johnny Mafiti tries; Harry Kempston 3 goals)
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