HE may not be the player he once was, but for a little man in the defensive line there are few greater tests than stopping Tony Williams in a one on one tackle when the 120 kilo wrecking ball gets up a full head of steam.
For Ivan Cleary, watching Luke Brooks take up that challenge on Easter Monday and get T-Rex to the ground is the best way to sum up what’s changed for the young halfback over the last 12 months.
Thinking back to one of his early games in charge at the Wests Tigers, Cleary has vivid memories of a torrid Saturday night at Leichhardt for Brooks who was brushed aside by Williams, then playing for Cronulla, in a play that led to a try.
At that stage of his career Brooks lacked confidence and didn’t appear to relish his work in defence.
Now 23 and holding the keys to a team that has surpassed all expectations in winning three of its first four games, Brooks is a completely different proposition, as T-Rex has now discovered.
“Last year Tony Williams played for the Sharks, just before he got injured, and had a pretty good night against us at Leichhardt,” Cleary said.
“It was the same thing, running at Luke, and I think definitely if you watched the difference today as opposed to that game, he’s got a lot more confidence in his defence.
“Tony Williams is a fair handful, especially at that point in the game when they had a bit of running and he set up a nice try, although I don’t know if that was Luke’s fault.
Ben Ikin, Nathan Ryan and Ben Glover are joined by Wests Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe to chat about the club’s incredible transformation on and off the field.
“He’s definitely defending well, Chris (Lawrence) and Luke together have got a good little combo on that left edge and I think anyone who plays the game, if you can defend well it’s going to give you confidence.”
Without having heard Cleary’s comments, Brooks has clearly thought about the change in attitude that has lifted his ability in defence.
Speaking after the Tigers’ fine Easter Monday performance, Brooks said he no longer got nervous before games and was having fun on the field, even when his side didn’t have the ball, despite the fact that his size makes him a target.
“I’m getting excited, not just to attack but to defend as well and I guess backing myself,” Brooks said.
“Ivan gives, not just me, I think everyone the confidence to back ourselves so I think that helps a lot.
“The first few rounds I don’t really feel like we’re playing. That takes the pressure off, I’m not thinking about the game too much and I’m just going out there and enjoying it.
“Usually the day before you get nervous or the day of the game you get nervous, it’s a weird feeling at the moment it doesn’t actually feel like we have a game. I don’t know how to explain it.”
While a more relaxed attitude to his football is helping Brooks become a more reliable defender, the halfback has also accepted that it is time for him to take more responsibility over the side when he has the ball.
Playing his sixth year of first grade he says this is finally his team, which is a big thing to acknowledge when you’re playing alongside a legend like Benji Marshall.
“I think (it is my team now), but I think in saying that Benji’s come in and helped me with it,” Brooks said.
“He’s taken a lot of pressure off me attack-wise, where he’s out there calling some shots as well.
“We’re getting that good balance and like I said before, him stepping up and doing some kicks definitely takes the pressure off me.”
Sharing the game managing responsibility with a player like Benji has also allowed Brooks to play to his strengths, taking opportunities to run the ball when they present themselves.
It’s this freedom of thought that Cleary sees as the biggest benefit for a half still striving to meet the huge expectations put on his shoulders as a teenager.
“He hasn’t changed much as a person, he’s still the same,” Cleary said. “But he’s got a bit more confidence in his game.
“He’s definitely fitter and stronger, which I think helps the style of player he is, I think his physique and speed is an asset, which he probably hadn’t used to its full potential, maybe he still hasn’t.
“It’s good to see that on show today where he wasn’t so much worried about the number on his back, he just plays and when he’s doing that, that’s when he’ll be at his best.”