Luke Brooks comes of age with masterclass against Manly
By Andrew Webster 15 April 2018 — 8:30pm
Luke Brooks came of age in the middle of Brookvale Oval yesterday afternoon, but before we get to that let’s go back to the middle of the SCG five years ago. Brooks was considered an 18-year-old whiz kid back then. He was already being compared to Andrew Johns and Benji Marshall, who at the time had been squeezed out of the Wests Tigers halves and, in time, would ultimately be squeezed out of the club.
“I just want him to be the next Luke Brooks,” said Mick Potter, the Tigers coach at the time. Then a baby-faced Brooks trotted out onto the hallowed turf of the cricket ground on a sparkling Saturday afternoon in August and unfurled a debut for the ages against St George Illawarra. Distraught Dragons fans headed straight to the bar at halftime, so dominant had Brooks been. Very few Next Big Things, though, ever live up to the hype. It takes most ball players five or six years to truly understand their trade, to feel comfortable in their skin. Ask Johns. Ask Marshall. Ask all of them. In the five years since that afternoon at the SCG, Brooks has tried to reach the lofty expectations of others but failed to meet them.
By anyone’s standards, his commanding performance in the Tigers’ 38-12 embarrassment of the Sea Eagles on their home turf yesterday was as good as it gets. And he did it alongside Marshall, who scored a try each side of halftime and looks as comfortable in a black-and-gold No.6 jumper as he did in 2005. ‘‘I get to see it,’’ Marshall oozed when asked about the evolution of Brooks. ‘‘I get the front row seat. He’s matured a lot since I was here last. The one thing he was always good at was running the ball. He’s been outstanding at that. He’s not feeling the pressure and expectation that he once had.’’
Tigers coach Ivan Cleary was so impressed that he didn’t flinch when asked if Brooks should be included in the NSW halfback conversation for State of Origin. ‘‘I think he deserves to be spoken about because he’s in good form,’’ Cleary said. ‘‘Whether he does or not … I thought he and Benji played really well. The reality is when these two guys do their thing and step up it looks up for us.’’
It took about five minutes for Brooks to grab this match by the throat, a deft grubber kick setting up the opening try for Chris Lawrence. It was Brooks’ vision that set up the second for Malakai Watene-Zelezniak after he pivoted and changed direction, darting down the left before releasing Kevin Naiqama downfield. And it was Brooks who took on the line in the 30th minute and scored all on his own. The Tigers’ 5-1 start to the season makes the club’s dramas from a year ago, when coach Jason Taylor was sacked and local juniors James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses and Aaron Woods all signed with other clubs, a distant memory. Brooks’ form was so poor at times last year that you could almost see the dollars falling off his next contract.
Now, he’s playing far better footy than the three former teammates who left for other clubs. Now, he’s formed a potent combination with Marshall and only Cleary knows how he’ll fit $800,000-a-season recruit Josh Reynolds in the mix when he is fully fit. Reynolds, who was returning from a hamstring injury, came on in the 50th minute and played some time at hooker. For their part, Manly were dreadful. In their previous two matches at Brookvale, against Parramatta and Canberra, the fans gave the players a standing ovation as they ran up the tunnel at halftime. Down 26-0 at the break, the Manly players were booed. Coach Trent Barrett has rarely gone nuclear in his three seasons at the club but, according to those who heard it, unleashed at halftime. In the second half, Sea Eagles legend Steve Menzies was seen walking in front of the main grandstand. “Put the boots on Beaver!” pleaded one fan. Soon after, the ground announcer told the crowd of 15,546 there was a players’ meet-and-greet session back at the Leagues Club after the match. Most of the fans laughed. Then many of them left.