MVP: Issac Luke (South Sydney Rabbitohs; Hooker)

Master of melodrama
Master of melodrama

A while back I was sitting next to a New Zealander on a flight home from Auckland. I noticed that he was wearing a NZRL jersey, and we got to talking. It turned out that he came from Napier, where he and his family were a major part of the local Rugby League and Union communities. Although he was still based in Napier, he worked during the week on a rig off the NZ coast, while also travelling to Sydney regularly, where two of his sons were trying to work their way into the Eels junior squad. Add to that the fact that his other son had recently come out and was now living with his boyfriend – an upscale restaurant chain owner – and it was an interesting family story. After a while we got to talking about NRL in particular, and it turned out that Issac Luke was a friend of his family. It was a strange experience for me, because I’ve always thought of Luke as one of the most aggro players out there, which of course makes him a bit of a powerhouse to watch but also makes it hard to think of him just being someone’s family friend as well. This was all shortly after the Bunnies took down the 2015 Final, so Luke had a lot of sympathy from NRL fans, me included – and I’m a Canterbury supporter – for missing out on that historical moment. Combined with talking to this guy on the plane, it gave me a bit more sympathy for Luke and his game. And this season, I’ve started to feel that he may be one of the best hookers out there (OK, that didn’t sound very good).

On fire
On fire

So what it is about Luke that makes him such a dynamo on the field, as well as such a potential liability to any club that tries to rein him in too much? For me, the answer is emotion. NRL is an emotional sport, and Luke is one of the most emotional players out there. In fact, emotional probably doesn’t fully capture it. Luke is volatile, melodramatic and histrionic when he’s out on the field, let alone when Souths are down for the count. Sometimes that makes him inspired. Sometimes it makes him stupid. Thursday night’s clash with the Broncos was a case in point. The same brassy, balls-to-the-wall mentality that saw him jump out of dummy half for a try in the 46th minute was also what led to one of his silliest shoulder charges this season, copping him a two-match ban from a Bunnies squad that was already wincing from Inglis’ departure before Sutton was stretchered off with a broken angle in the 13th minute. The charge was even more mistimed in that Luke had just been cleared by the NRL judiciary for a high one on Thurston a couple of weeks back, and was returning to the field for the first time since then to take on the Broncos. Instead of counting his blessings and keeping a low profile, Luke got up to his old antics without a second thought and gave the judiciary a real reason to put him back in the sin bin. If Luke’s collision with Thurston had raised the same old scepticism about whether the shoulder charge debate was just another trumped-up moral panic, seeing Luke slam headlong into Corey Oates must have given even the most dedicated chargers pause for thought.

Against the Panthers
Against the Panthers

Now I’m not saying Luke didn’t have cause to be emotional. Seeing Souths sink to the bottom of the top eight is a bit of an emotional experience for any footy fan, whatever your affiliation. Even if you’re a Bulldogs supporter like myself, you couldn’t help but feel that the Bunnies’ victory at last year’s Grand Final was a win for the game itself, proof that the NRL can continue to sustain itself as a franchise against all odds. I can’t imagine how it must have felt – how it must still feel – for Luke to be caught in the midst of Souths’ current downward turn without having even experienced that golden Grand Final moment as consolation. In a way, it’s not surprising that he’s decided to pack it up and head home to New Zealand next year. When you’ve missed out on playing in the first Rabbitohs victory in decades, it’s probably best to make a clean break with Australian teams altogether and get a bit of breathing space. At the same time, that’s just made Luke’s game even more dramatic over the last couple of weeks, as he’s fought to go out on a good note and impart something of his personality to the last few weeks of his last season with the Rabbitohs. Above and beyond his dedication to his team, Luke has been fighting his own very personal finals battle ever since he was struck out of last year’s Grand Final.

Heading out
Heading out

Then again, the very reason Luke missed out on the Grand Final was his dangerous throw on SBW in the preliminary final win. And that brings me to my main point about Luke: he is the ultimate shoulder charge player. Sure, Sonny Bill has tended to be the player most associated with the charge, as well as one of the most vocal. His Twitter support for the Kane Evans-Sam Kasiano smackdown in Round 22 was only surpassed by his equally emphatic retraction in the wake of the James Ackerman tragedy a few days later. At the same time, there’s something about the way SBW has managed to craft a career out of the shoulder charge that’s not exactly true to the spirit of the shoulder charge either. By definition, shoulder charges are excessive, anarchic, chaotic – they strain the boundaries of good sportsmanship and canny careerism in the same way as an Origin biff, which is presumably why they generate so much controversy and conversation about the parameters of the game in the process. Imagine if every footy match devolved into a biff on the scale of Origin, and you can start to get some sense of why the shoulder charge is such a big deal. Some fans will tell you that there’s a clear distinction between an acceptable shoulder charge and an unacceptable shoulder charge, but I’ve always found that distinction fairly slippery and arbitrary, let alone when it comes to players like Luke, who always seem to be charging at the very cusp of what’s deemed acceptable or appropriate conditions.

Training
Training

In some ways, the whole shoulder charge drama comes down to the difference between Union and League. Although it can be more brutal than League, Union prides itself on discipline, organisation, sublimation. SBW may be one of the greatest NRL players in history, but his personality is inextricably Union, just as his shoulder charges never feel anything but tasteful, well-timed and judicious, even if they managed to knock some of the biggest players in the game out cold in the process. Rugby League, by contrast, is a game of excess. Part of the thrill of NRL is the way players continually confound conventions, as well as the ingenuity with which they do so. Obviously, there’s a fine line, but a really good League player is often someone who knows how to stay just on the wrong side of the law and get away with it. That’s a skill that the cheekiest halves – partners in crime – often best know how to muster, but every now and then you get a single player who personifies it too. And Luke is one of those players. Every time he gets out to play, there’s a volatility, a drive to creatively push the parameters of the game that makes him either the most ingenious or the most foolish player on the field, depending on how the risks he takes pay off. Perhaps that’s why Luke often feels like one of the quintessential NRL players, just as the shoulder charge is the quintessential NRL quandary at the moment. There may be better players out there, as well as more interesting tactical questions, but the shoulder charge as practised by Luke gets to the very heart of the spirit of excess that both defines League and ensures that it’s always in a state of semi-jeopardy as a franchise, plagued by a sense of normalised crisis that you don’t get in most other football codes.

Playing for the Kiwis
Playing for the Kiwis

And that’s Luke to a tee: normalised crisis. Like the game itself, Luke is never just cruising along comfortably. He’s always coming off some drama or amping himself up for some drama, which is perhaps why he always makes any game he plays in feel as if it’s caught up in the volatile frenzy of finals footy as well. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that he’s the one of the ultimate finals footy players – at least as far as his personality is concerned – except that his brassy, balls-to-the-wall approach is as likely to get him kicked out of a final as it is likely to make him win it. More than most other players, Luke just seems to do stuff without thinking, which makes him one of the most emotional stars to watch – nobody lets go of himself more in the haka – but also a bit of a risk to any team prepared to take him on. Watching SBW cop a high one from Luke in last year’s Roosters-Souths preliminary showdown, then, was a bit like watching a friendly conversation between two different kinds of chargers. It’s well known that SBW and Luke are cousins, but watching them in collision was a bit like seeing Union and League communciate with each other as cousins as well. That time around, SBW managed to absorb Luke’s League antics into his own consummately Union sense of sportsmanship, urging the judiciary to clear Luke in order to leave Souths intact for the Grand Final. This year, SBW seems to have grudgingly reached his limit as far as the shoulder charge is concerned – as has, I suspect, the NRL itself – but you can be guaranteed that whatever legislation is laid down Luke will find some way to niggle at the limits of what’s considered appropriate playmaking. Never the same player twice, he’s a border-dweller, hanging out in all the grey zones, fringe spaces and blurry areas of Rugby League – and there are many – testing the definitions and boundaries of the game in ways that are either idiotic, irresponsible or inspired – or all three – depending on how you catch him on the day.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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