To say that rugby league is going through a generational change at the moment would be an understatement. Some true greats of the game have already announced their retirements at the conclusion of season 2018, including Sam Thaiday, Ryan Hoffman and future Immortal Jonathan Thurston.
Other modern greats like Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Robbie Farah, Benji Marshall and Paul Gallen can all be expected to follow suit within the next year or two.
When examining the career of Luke Lewis, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he belongs in the same category as the players mentioned above.
315 games and counting for two clubs, with 119 tries and counting. Two premierships at two different clubs – one as a skinny 21-year-old winger and one as a wrinkly 33-year-old second-rower. 17 Origins for New South Wales. 16 Tests for Australia. 2016 Clive Churchill medalist. 2010 Dally M and RLIF Lock of the Year. All this after overcoming thyroid cancer in 2012.
That’s one hell of a resume. To say he’s one of the best back-rowers of the modern era doesn’t do him justice – he played representative football in the outside backs early in his career, and he’s won NRL man-of-the-match awards playing both halfback and five-eighth.
To describe him as anything less than one of the most complete footballers I’ve ever seen in my life would be an insult. And to top it all off, he is one of the NRL’s true nice guys, having never been involved in an off-field indiscretion and spending just a handful of weeks of his 17-year career suspended for foul play.
Luke Lewis may not receive the plaudits of the Smith's, Slater's, Cronk's and Thurston's of the world. But he bloody well should because he’s been one of the best players in the game for as long as any of them have. Don’t believe me? Here’s a look back at the career of Luke Lewis.
From humble beginnings
A Blacktown native, Luke Lewis attended Patrician Brothers’ College Blacktown – a school that has produced many elite rugby league players over the years including Andrew Fifita, Matt Moylan, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Sione Katoa, Albert Kelly, John Asiata and many others.
He played his junior football with Blacktown City Junior RLFC in the Penrith district competition, before progressing through the Panthers’ ranks and eventually making his first grade debut in round 25 of 2001.
Starting out in the outside backs, Lewis was quite the try-scorer in his early days. He scored his first try in round 3 2002 against his future club Cronulla. He scored 17 tries that season, including two hat-tricks.
The 2003 season saw him win his first of 2 premierships, playing on the wing in the Panthers’ grand final-winning side. He played 25 games that year including the grand final, crossing the stripe 18 times.
Off the back of his consistent try-scoring prowess and obvious all-round footballing ability, the representative selectors began to take notice.
A taste of higher honours
Lewis’s representative career began with a tour of Great Britain and France. While he played none of the Ashes Tests against Great Britain, he was given a taste of representative football in two non-test internationals against France and England A.
This small taste of rep football and the chance to train with the likes of Darren Lockyer, Shane Webcke, Brett Kimmorley and Danny Buderus no doubt helped pave the way for his own highly successful representative career in the years to come.
Lewis got his first official taste of representative football playing for City in 2004. He was subsequently selected for NSW, playing games 1 and 3 on the wing and game 2 at centre. However, his switch to the back row would limit his Origin opportunities over the next few years, as he was unable to make the NSW side in that position due to its plethora of quality back-rowers like Nathan Hindmarsh, Craig Fitzgibbon, Ben Kennedy, Andrew Ryan, Willie Mason and others.
Lewis continued to play for City between 2005 and 2008, showing that he was always thereabouts for Origin selection. He would have to wait until 2009 though before he would play Origin again. When he did finally return to that level, it was vastly different to when he’d last played.
Establishing himself amongst the elite
Luke Lewis debuted for the Blues in a winning side, playing alongside legends like Brad Fittler, Danny Buderus, Anthony Minichiello and Nathan Hindmarsh. That side had stability. It was built around a core of elite players – something the NSW side didn’t have in 2009.
The team Lewis returned to had lost a record-equaling 3 consecutive series’, and did not want to set a new record with 4. The Blues could not come up with a winning combination throughout theses years. They made vast changes to the team from game to game while QLD kept its side the same. This allowed QLD to gain a significant edge over NSW in terms of experience and combinations.
Whether the NSW selection policy between 2006 and 2010 was a symptom or a cause of their lack of success is up for debate (I’d suggest it’s a bit of both – kind of a chicken and the egg situation). What is clear however is that this selection policy greatly limited Lewis’s opportunities in the sky blue jersey. After returning to the side in Game 1 2009 he played just 3 of a possible 6 games, despite consistently being one of the NSW’s best (both at Origin and club level).
When Ricky Stuart took over as coach from Craig Bellamy in 2011, he implemented a QLD style “pick and stick” policy, with Luke Lewis being one of the first players selected. He missed the first game of 2011 through injury, before playing games 2 and 3 off the bench. From there he played every single game up to and including Game 3 of the 2014 series (11 games in a row), after which he was never seen again in the Origin arena.
It was in these years that Lewis cemented his status as an Origin great. He played many games off the bench despite being good enough to start. He was so valuable as a bench player due to his versatility and his ability to break a game open with his leg-speed and footwork around the ruck (the tactic would always be to get him and Anthony Watmough on at the same time to terrorize QLD’s tired forwards).
Ultimately, what made him such a great Origin player is that he would never give up on a play. He made countless cover tackles on runaway Queenslanders and often led the charge when NSW were tasked with tackling their way to a rare victory.
I always thought it was a mistake to drop Lewis in 2015. I certainly understand the logic in coach Laurie Daley’s decision to refresh the side with some new faces like Josh Jackson and future captain Boyd Cordner. However, his decision to drop Lewis whilst keeping Beau Scott and Ryan Hoffman in the side astounds me to this day. NSW lost the next 3 series’ under Laurie Daley, with Luke Lewis watching at home.
Unfortunately for Lewis, his time at the top coincided with NSW’s time at the bottom. He was consistently the best of a beaten bunch – as illustrated by his regular inclusion in the QLD-dominated Australian side during NSW’s lean years. The success of the QLD team ensured that Lewis would enjoy plenty of success however while playing for the Kangaroos (the only test match he ever lost was the 2015 Anzac Test against New Zealand).
I feel I must mention the 2014 Origin series again – one that most will remember the 2014 series for the toughness and leadership of skipper Paul Gallen, the heroics of both Morris Brothers playing through injury, and the sheer brilliance of Jarryd Hayne.
However, one cannot gloss over the role that Luke Lewis played in this series. Without him and players like him in the squad, there’s no way NSW would have won the attrition battles that were the first two games. As the only player in the squad who had previously won a series (2004), Luke Lewis’s experience would have been invaluable to that team.
Moving on from Penrith
By 2012 Lewis’s involvement in State of Origin was having ripple effects on his club career, with new Panthers’ coach Ivan Cleary stripping Lewis of the captaincy at the start of the Origin period that year.
It was said to be just a temporary move at the time, with Lewis to regain the captaincy at the close of Origin. However, Kevin Kingston was retained as captain for the remainder of the year. This marked the beginning of the end of Lewis’s Panthers’ career as shortly after he signed a new 4-year deal with Cronulla – walking out on his Panthers’ contract 2 years early.
It can’t have been easy for Lewis to walk out on the only club he’d ever known. It wouldn’t have been easy for him to join Cronulla either as they were being rocked by the ASADA scandal by the time he arrived at the club.
The Sharks were in turmoil. But Lewis, having obviously had nothing to do with that turmoil, did what he does best in difficult situations – he rolled his sleeves up and did some hard work.
Luke Lewis is a classic case of a fresh start doing wonders to reinvigorate a footballer’s career. He had arguably gotten stale at Penrith – as good a player as he was, they had enjoyed little success under his captaincy.
His arrival at the Sharks gave him a new lease on life. On the flipside, his arrival did wonders for the Sharks. He was able to assist the likes of Paul Gallen and Chris Heighington with mentoring the younger forwards. They consistently made the finals while he was around and will do so again this year. In fact, the Sharks have only missed the finals once while Luke Lewis was around – 2014 when his season was limited to just 8 games due to Origin duties and injuries.
He contributed monumentally to their maiden premiership in 2016. That year he played every game except one, averaging 89m and 25 tackles per game. Fittingly, he saved his best performance for last and was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal for best on ground in the Grand Final.
The end approaches
As the end comes near for Luke Lewis, he can reflect proudly on several things.
He was able to win two Origin series’ with NSW during a period in which NSW were absolutely dominated by QLD. The fact that they were a decade apart also reflects his longevity as a top player.
By winning two premierships with two different clubs, he joins elite company like Brad Fittler, Greg Inglis and Jonathan Thurston. Again, this reflects his longevity.
He’s arguably one of the most complete footballers in history, having not just played nearly every position, but having done so with success. Even without his positional versatility, one can see what a complete player he is just by watching him play. He offloads, he has great footwork; he puts players through gaps just as well as he hits them himself, he’s capable of putting massive hits on players yet rarely misses tackles in attempting to do so, and he even forces repeat sets from time to time with deft little grubbers into the in-goal.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he can reflect on being one of few players who can genuinely say that his form never dipped as his career reached his close (even the great Jonathan Thurston cannot say that). In fact, based on his current form, I believe a case could be made for his inclusion in the NSW team.
The way the Sharks are traveling, I see no reason why Lewis can’t add a third premiership to his resume. They’re sitting comfortably in 5th place on 26 points. Their spine combinations have started to click. They also have Josh Dugan to return to the side – an absolute weapon at right centre in a side that doesn’t require him to create much.
A Cronulla premiership would be a fitting end to what’s been a fantastic career for Luke Lewis. He’s been an elite player for an unbelievably long time, and one of the most consistent in recent memory.
On a more personal note, it’s been an absolute pleasure to watch him play for all these years. Even though my team is also well in the hunt for a premiership at this stage, I would not be disappointed to see Cronulla win for the sake of the Lewis fairytale.
Thanks for the memories Luke, and here’s to more between now and the end of the season. Congratulations on a brilliant career for a great player and an even greater man.
What are your best memories from the long and decorated career of Luke Lewis? Let us know in the comments below.