League: Hooker holds key to Kiwis' Cup hopes

By Michael Brown

Isaac Luke.
Isaac Luke.

Like most players, Issac Luke rattles out the line that he just hopes he makes the New Zealand side for the upcoming World Cup. In reality, he's the one player the Kiwis can't do without if they're to defend their world title.

Coach Stephen Kearney would love to have Sonny Bill Williams in his 24-man squad in the UK and France, but he has a plethora of back-row options and is even reasonably well stocked in the halves - although he won't want to be without the ever-improving Kieran Foran.

It's at hooker where depth is still a little thin and where Luke is a cut above. Not only is he an 80-minute player, which impacts on the make-up of the interchange bench, but he is also acknowledged as the best dummy half runner in the game and a master at exploiting tired and lazy runners.

The 26-year-old was a player Australian coach Tim Sheens and captain Cameron Smith singled out for attention in this year's Anzac test, and his presence even helped shape the selection of the Kangaroos' side as Sheens opted for a mobile forward pack capable of containing Luke.

"I didn't know that until after the game," Luke says. "I knew then why they were throwing everything at me."

It wasn't something Luke or his teammates could overcome, as the Kiwis saw a good start unravel in a 32-12 defeat in Canberra but there's a growing belief they can once again push Australia at the World Cup.

Five years ago the Kiwis beat Australia 34-20 in the final to win their first world title. Luke played a leading hand in that, coming off the bench to kick three goals from three attempts and keep the pressure on with his darting runs.

He had made his international debut only months earlier as a 20-year-old in the 2008 Anzac test, which also marked the start of Kearney's reign as coach. One thing Kearney often said in that week about his young hooker was that he was cheeky. He can be a larger-than life personality, which teams often need, but it's something that has also got him in trouble on and off the field.

In 2011 he admitted he tried to break the leg of cousin Rangi Chase with a leg twist in New Zealand's 28-6 defeat to England because Chase turned his back on the New Zealand jersey and he was also widely slated for a cannonball tackle on Australian prop David Shillington earlier in the Four Nations.

Last year, he was dropped by Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire for breaking curfew while attending a family member's stag party and for an altercation with prop Scott Geddes at training. Luke now looks back on that time as "a good thing".

"When things don't go your way, you have a choice whether to drop your lip or get back on the horse," he says. "I wasn't happy at the time but, looking back, it was the kick up the arse I needed and it pushed me to do as well as I could."

Luke has been honoured by the Mid Central Zone, which includes Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and Taranaki with the creation of the Issac Luke Cup, a tournament for the top high schools in the district.

Luke desperately wanted to attend but it clashed with his Rabbitohs commitments and he was instead represented by his grandparents.


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