With 2016 set to be a breakout year for Wests Tigers young gun Luke Brooks, it’s worth spending a moment on what makes him such a valuable halfback at Leichhardt and Campbelltown. Admittedly, the Tigers halves combo has been dominated by Mitchell Moses over these first few rounds, while Brooks has had a fairly quiet start to the season, missing the opening match against the Warriors thanks to a high hit late last year. Nevertheless, if his performance in 2015 is anything to go, he’s well on the way to becoming one of the big future players in the game, with Johnathan Thurston him singling out as someone who can easily make it at an Origin and international level.
One of the things you notice immediately about Brooks is his quietness: he’s easily the most withdrawn and introspective half playing at the moment, which can make him a bit shy of really gaining control of the ball, but can also give him an invisibility on the field that makes him a powerhouse when it really counts. As part of their effort to deal with the fallout from Robbie Farah and Jason Taylor’s clash late last year, the Tigers have given every home game from 2016 a theme, with the match against the Warriors kicking it off with Multicultural Round in Week 1. As part of that process, players have been more encouraged than ever to identify themselves with particular brands and events. So far, Brooks has spearheaded that movement, using the Tigers to promote the release of Spectre on DVD and rocking up to Leichhardt Oval in an Aston Martin for a training session and photo shoot with a jersey designed specially for the occasion.
While there was something absurd about this event, I liked the way it harked back to an era when football was tied into the rhythms of the video store, especially because it seems like that connection is starting to return again in the increased visibility of Netflix promotions on sideline advertising. Although it’s weird to think that the Raiders were once sponsored by Video Ezy, it may only be a matter of time before we see Netflix on a jersey. There was something about seeing Brooks roll up in an Aston Martin, then, that recalled the grand old cinematic days of Rugby League, as well as the days before pay television and mobile social media devices, when watching a live broadcast was a bit like watching a televised movie, or even like going to the movies, in the case of some of the bigger matches and events.
At the same time, there was something appropriate about Brooks styling himself as Spectre, since by all accounts he’s got even quieter and more introspective this year. Apparently he barely spoke a word for the first week or two of pre-season training, withdrawing into himself so completely that Robbie Farah had to sit down with him and have a talk about how he was going. It emerged, however, that Brooks wasn’t in any trouble, but had just returned in 2016 with an even greater sense of purpose, determination and concentration than he brought to the game last year. In a football code that can be so dominated by theatrical aggression, it’s worth remembering that some of the greatest players are the most introspective, treating the game with a calm, steady confidence that cuts across the heroics of more bombastic personalities.
Brooks is one of those players to the core, which makes him something of an outlier in the contemporary game, where aggro attitude often equals brand power, and the loudest players are often confused with the most talented. Of all the current Tigers players, Brooks is probably one of the least visible in that sense, especially because he’s clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera, and tends to struggle to find his words when he’s interviewed about his game. While some pundits have argued that he needs to become more extroverted, both on and off the field, my sense is that he needs to channel that quietness and take it to a place of conviction. Once he does that, he’ll not only have found his sweet spot, but he’ll probably make a brilliant captain as well. Like Wayne Bennett and Darren Lockyer, he knows how to find the calm in the middle of the storm, and that can be one of the greatest skill sets in Rugby League, especially for a halfback.
The main problem for Brooks, as Thurston pointed out, is that he hasn’t got a great number of mentor figures at Wests. While there’s something to be said for two up-and-coming halves being paired together – if it works, it really works – it also feels as if a player like Brooks would benefit from experience as well, especially since Jason Taylor seems to want to turn him into something of an entertainer on the field. Engaging with that kind of free-floating, open-plan footy requires mentoring as well as coaching, and, apart from Farah, there aren’t that many players at the Tigers with the requisite seniority. Certainly, Matt Ballin is a veteran, but he’s got enough on his hands getting used to his new home, as well as the challenges of playing alongside another first-grade hooker.
As much as I want to see Brooks thrive at the Tigers – and to see Brooks, Moses and Tedesco thrive as a threesome – it may be in his best interests to look elsewhere. Time and again, Des Hasler has expressed his interest, which makes sense, since both Moses Mbye and Josh Reynolds are at just the point in their careers at which they’re ready to become mentor figures, since they’ve both demonstrated a newfound maturity this year that’s well and truly separated them from the next generation of young guns in the game. At the same time, I’m unwilling to underestimate what Brooks could do alongside Teddy and Moses: despite all the hype surrounding Shaun Johnson, Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen such a promising threesome in the game. Under the right conditions, they could do anything, and while Brooks may be the unsung member of the group, it’s worthwhile for him to stick around for a bit longer to see just how much he can distinguish himself while working alongside them.