League: Duo are the heart and soul

By Michael Brown

Simon Mannering probably shouldn't have played. He had been sick as a dog with the flu all week and was barely able to complete the warm-up.

He certainly shouldn't have played all 80 minutes, especially after he broke his hand in the first 10.

But he did, and scored a try to boot in the Warriors's 36-14 defeat of the Sea Eagles last August. Some achievement. The fact he has now played 72 consecutive matches (60 for the Warriors and 12 for the Kiwis) without a break for injury, rest or loss of form is mind-boggling.

He is not alone in backing up week after week. Micheal Luck has not missed a game since making his debut for the Warriors in the first game of the 2006 season. That's 67 in total.

In an era when rest and rotation is de rigueur in rugby, Mannering and Luck bristle at the thought. Taking a break during a game is unwelcome enough, let alone taking a weekend off. The icy looks on their faces when they are dragged from the field attest to that.

Mannering has averaged 76 minutes a game since making his debut as an 18-year-old in 2005 and 79 1/2 minutes in 2008 since his move to the second row.

Luck has averaged 60 minutes for the Warriors but in 2008, following the reduction in the number of interchanges to 10, his minutes have jumped significantly to 75 a game.

Those numbers alone, however, don't do justice to their contribution to a side that has rediscovered some form in recent weeks and still has an outside chance of making the top-eight playoffs.

Warriors coach Ivan Cleary considers the two back-rowers the heart and soul of his side. Only once, when Mannering was sick last year, has he contemplated leaving out one of them.

"They are just two guys you never have to worry about," Cleary says ahead of today's visit of the defending champion Storm. "They do their job and you know exactly what you're going to get. You are always looking for them to improve but there's a certain level they just don't go under. It's nice to have."

Both are more than a little bashful about their standing in the side. There is plenty of looking at the ground and "I don't know about that" when asked about their incredible run in the side.

Mannering is also superstitious about an article appearing on the subject, pointing out Wairangi Koopu suffered a season-ending shoulder injury immediately after Maori television screened a feature on the second-rower playing 50 straight games.

After a little cajoling, particularly of Mannering, both credit good fortune for their lengthy run of games.

"Yeah, it is a nice record," Luck says of his streak, "but it can go pretty easily. I could fall down the stairs tomorrow and break my ankle.

"There were a few times, especially in my first year [at the Warriors], I was lucky to stay in the side because we had no one else. We ran out of players late in the year. My form wasn't that good but I played anyway. Mostly, I'm just plain lucky."

He might be but he and Mannering don't leave everything to chance.

They can often be found in ice baths, on the physio's bench, wearing tights after games and when flying or stretching. Hours of stretching.

"I used to think it was all bullshit, this new-age scientific stuff," 26-year-old Luck says.

"When I was a young bloke, I lived pretty hard, especially in Townsville [with the Cowboys]. You can get caught up in the lifestyle a bit. As you get older, you learn to listen to your body a bit more. If you need to do more work or have a spell, you do it.

"I notice all the things like ice baths and tights help. I have to do it to keep up with the game."

Mannering is also a convert.

"In my first couple of years, I didn't do any of that stuff. I was naive. This year, I've looked after myself more, eating [better] and resting [more].

"This is the first year I've actually tried to get flexible. I always used to do extra weights, thinking I needed to get bigger, but it's the little things, like looking after your legs because that's what will go first and then the shoulders."

Those shoulders have come in quite handy this season. It would be hard to blame Luck or Mannering for the side's poor defensive record for most of the season, given the amount of work they get through.

Mannering is a workhorse and has become more penetrative on attack in recent weeks, as he looks to offload or step, instead of just carting the ball up. Luck possesses an indefatigable ability to tackle anything that moves. He has made 674 tackles this season, second only to the Titans' Nathan Friend (704), at an average of 40 a game.

It's an even better return than last year, when he was the NRL's top tackler with 959 at an average of 37 a game.

"That's my job in this place," says the two-time Warriors Clubman of the Year. "I'm in the middle of the field to tidy up. If the opposition have got [Steve] Price, [Ruben] Wiki and [Evarn] Tuimavave and me standing in the middle, I know who they're going to run at. If it helps everyone else, I'm glad to do it.

"My attack is something I'm working on. It's not an area I'm naturally gifted in.

"When I was young, I was a lot bigger than everyone else and bullied my way around a bit. Then I got to first grade and I was just trying to keep a spot with the Cowboys and I was more worried about not making mistakes. I was very one-dimensional. I have worked pretty hard on it but I'm still nowhere near where I would want to be."

Whether Luck and Mannering can lift their side to the playoffs is debatable. Barring injury and some media jinx on Mannering, they will be there for the final seven weeks of the regular season.

"I guess they say you're only as good as your last game so it doesn't matter if you play 60 terrible games," Mannering says.

"I'm happy to play each week. I would be gutted to miss one through injury or form. I guess the time will come when I have to."

Clearly, it will take more than illness and a broken hand to stop him.

- Herald on Sunday

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