Remember when the biggest issue at Mt Smart last year was whether to re-up on Issac Luke and if so, how long for? Aotearoa Warriors took their time in dealing with Luke and everyone had a view on Luke's value, making it a fairly hefty yarn for a few weeks. Then came Shaun Johnson's departure to blow out pretty much every bit of news and rumour that's floated around Mt Smart since the Stephen Kearney era began.
Since Johnson's departure, all the talk has zoned in on who will fill the vacant halves spot left by Johnson. Had we reached this point and Luke was back in Australia, over in England or retired, I'd be fairly downbuzz about the Warriors chances of making improvements on last year. Had Luke left, the Warriors could have either gone all in on the likes of Nathaniel Roache and Karl Lawton, or hit the market to recruit a solid job-doing dummy half to then allow Roache to be sprinkled on top.
At this stage of the club's development in the Kearney era, neither of those options tickles my toes. Building, development and steady progress requires consistency, chemistry and a core group all pulling in the same direction. Much of that on the field, starts with Luke at hooker who wasn't quite criminally slept on last season as most could see the value he offers, although he's far more useful than the odd powerful scoot.
When pondering how the Warriors will absorb the loss of Johnson, I highlighted Blake Green and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as the obvious key men. This was more in reference to the edges though, where Johnson did the bulk of his destructive work last season. In taking a more holistic view, Luke is equally as important as Green and Tuivasa-Sheck this season, which means that the Warriors could have got a bargain in snapping up Luke for 2019.
Spiral pass left and right of the ruck give the first-receiver more time and space, which is going to be a handy bonus for who ever partners Green. Luke even has a funky no-look pass where he drifts to one side of the ruck, then fires a pass back across his body to the other side of the ruck. Combine Luke's passing game strictly around the ruck area with his running out of dummy half and the Warriors kinda have the perfect hooker for this situation Luke's craft around the ruck either gets the team going downhill, or gives the halves an extra jiffy.
These are nerdy ideas and I'll be keeping my footy goggles tuned tightly on to Luke's work at dummy half this season. Luke isn't just going to pass off the turf all the time like many hookers in the NRL do, to get quick ball to dominant halves who have the experience to deal with being targeted. You can be certain that opposition teams will load up on the perceived weakness of the Warriors in the young half and Luke's ability to engage markers, then get the ball to the half will be crucial in stopping markers boosting out to put pressure on the half.
Any Luke vs Roache discussion has to factor in Luke's kicking game as well as a few other variables that pour cold water on Roache getting the starting gig in 2019. Luke had 32 kicks from 23 games last season, a smidge over a kick a game and there should be more kicks from Luke this season to ease the pressure on both halves; opposition teams may load up on Green knowing he's the dominant half.
We saw Luke drop 40/20's last season, yet the most prolific aspect of his kicking game is an early long kick pegging the opponent on their own 10m line. There was a blatant focus from the Warriors last season to do that and then win the early tackles with aggressive, driving defence. Luke can play a crucial role in setting up this aspect of the game plan through his long kicks and then the young half will be putting in a strong kick-chase effort, a strong tackle with the lads and building confidence.
Luke's ability to skip out sideways and kick, is the best evidence of the time and space he can create for himself and others. Markers have to respect his running game, so they fall back and plug the hole between the ruck and defensive line, allowing Luke to go sideways. The threat of running, kicking or passing will be the fulcrum of the Warriors attack this season and I suspect it will be a huge asset in the development of the young half who partners Green.
Did the Warriors know how all this would unfold? I don't think so. My intuition tells me that the Warriors re-signed Luke and thought that Johnson would stick around to see out his contract, then by the time Johnson's contract was up and he wanted more money, Roache would be ready to step up for more consistent game time. Johnson gapped early though and Luke is presented with an opportunity to showcase his value.
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Peace and love 27.