Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Strong as concrete Luke back to his roots

Warriors hooker returns to region where he grew up on bullrush and some hard knocks.
South Taranaki boy Issac Luke returns to his home region with the Warriors tomorrow night. Picture / Nick Reed
South Taranaki boy Issac Luke returns to his home region with the Warriors tomorrow night. Picture / Nick Reed

Issac Luke goes back to his roots tomorrow night - back to Taranaki, where he spent most of his life until he left for Australia as a 17-year-old.

It's an emotional return for Luke - who could have imagined he would be playing for the Warriors in his home region? - but not all the memories are misty-eyed happiness.

Luke was born and raised in Hawera, south Taranaki, where the Warriors face the Raiders at Yarrow Stadium tomorrow night.

He enjoyed a sports-mad childhood, doing athletics and playing rugby and league on the weekend.

"Sport was all around for us," said Luke. "After school every day, all the local kids used to get together on a yard on A'Court St and play bullrush. It was hard ... it would even spill out on to the street sometimes, with kids getting tackled on the concrete. But you had to show up."

It's the kind of tough upbringing that moulded Luke into the player he is today, but the prospect of taking a wrong turn was never far away.

"When I was a teenager, there weren't too many choices," said Luke. "For a lot of people in town, there was the meatworks ... or the gang.

"Some of my mates were really, really talented at sport but they went off the rails, to the point where it was either a patch or prison. Others were dropping out of school, having babies. That is why I was so determined to go and be someone; to show them that one of us can make us."

Luke had talent, an iron will and a fearless approach. By the age of 15, he was playing senior club league, and turning out for the Taranaki Wildcats in the Bartercard Cup in 2003.

"That was tough," said Luke. "Every week, you were playing against men, big guys. You always had something to prove, that you belonged, that you could hack it."

A year later, Luke was selected for the Wellington under-18 team, alongside Simon Mannering.

"He was small but very fast," said Mannering. "He probably could have played anywhere but he was out on the wing, always in his headgear. "

Mannering says his potential was obvious.

"He was only 16 - a year younger than the rest of us - but he was tough," said Mannering. "He was very small but he probably tackled the hardest in the team. I remember him being really physical for the size he was. Probably similar to what you see now; real tough, a bit cheeky ... a good player to have in your team."

The rest is history. Luke was lured to Sydney by the Bulldogs as an 17-year-old, before switching to the Rabbitohs a year later. He made 188 appearances for South Sydney, earning a reputation as one of the best hookers in the game.

The next chapter - at the Warriors - hasn't all gone to plan, but evidence suggests the 28-year-old is on an upward trajectory. He claimed two try assists in his best performance of the season against the Dragons, and produced some trademark sniping bursts in Christchurch last week.

"I don't think he has been going badly," said Mannering. "He plays in a pretty key position and a lot of the team haven't played alongside him. Combinations are still getting there."

Luke is adamant the best is yet to come, starting with a performance in front of family and friends tomorrow.

"I know where I need to get to," said Luke. "I know what is required."

- NZ Herald

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