First published in League Express, Monday 26th Aug 2013
Looking back on almost a half-a-century of covering Rugby League (and another decade watching it as a kid) there are a few defining moments.
Teams such as the 1955 Frenchmen, the St George Dragons of the 1960s, Jack Gibson’s Parramatta outfit, the unbeatable Wigan combinations of the 1990s and the virtually unbeatable Kangaroo touring squads.
Great games such as the 1997 ARL Grand Final, when Newcastle won in the closing seconds, the Second Test at Swinton in 1963 in which an all-Australian side won the Ashes for the first time in history, the Ricky Stuart/Mal Meninga Houdini act at Old Trafford in 1990.
Then there were the debuts of a handful of players who made us sit up and take notice. They had future legends stamped all over them.
Growing up in the Australian bush, I never did see Reg Gasnier’s debut. But I did see him in that first year (1959), at a stage where he had made more appearances in the representative arena (for Sydney, New South Wales and Australia) than he had for his club, St George.
The first time we saw ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ a shiver went down our collective spines. To this humble scribe, Gaz remains the greatest player I have ever seen in action.
Then there was ‘Joey’ Johns in his first run-on match, against South Sydney in 1994, in which he scored a Newcastle record of 23 points (two tries, seven goals and a field goal). It was the start of his rewriting of the record books.
And what about the debut of Benji Marshall, at Campbelltown Stadium in 2003?
The spine was tingling again. And with good reason!
It was fitting that Benji should have been playing at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday as part of another of those defining moments in the annals of the Greatest Game of All.
After much pleading, Wests Tigers got special dispensation from the salary cap auditor Ian Schubert to play two of the next generation of Tigers – scrum-half Luke Brooks and prop Nathan Brown.
They were able to play because the Tigers and their opponents, St George Illawarra Dragons, were both out of the race for the finals.
Nathan Brown had a fine debut.
However, it was the performance of Brooks that will live in the memories of the 15,016 lucky fans who were at the arena.
Out with the old (Marshall) and in with the next generation (Brooks).
Before the game the great Arthur Summons, former Australian Test captain-coach and, with Norm Provan, depicted on the Premiership trophy, ceremoniously presented Brooks with his first Wests Tigers shirt.
It had No 20 on the back, even though Brooks was on the pitch from the kick-off as scrum-half.
By the time you read this, his family will most certainly have had it framed. The only question is where it will be displayed. In Luke’s bedroom? In the hallway, adjacent to the front door? Or maybe prominently in the family’s lounge room?
Rest assured Brooks will never be wearing No 20 again. From now on it will be No 7 every time.
Over to Benji: “He was outstanding … not only for his age … but for his first game to stand up and lead the team at halfback was brilliant. He kicked well, ran well, scored a try, set up a couple. I think the future of the club, without putting too much pressure on him, is really bright.
“I feel like I’m leaving the club in good hands. But, as a club, the expectation of these guys coming through can’t be so high, so early. They’re great players but they’ve still got a long way to go. We need to ease that pressure a bit and not have too much expectation for next year.
“I’m sure he will be a great player if he keeps working the way he works and keeps his head down.”
Brooks talked his fellow Tigers around all afternoon. But off the pitch he is quite shy.
“It was a real honour to play at the SCG,” he said.
“It means a lot to play with Benji, he was a hero when I was growing up as a Tigers fan. It was massive to get a game with him and play with players who have been my heroes.
“The boys made it easier for me by doing their job and listening to me.”
Coach Mick Potter has known of Brooks’ ability since first took over.
“People are comparing him to other players of the past, but I just think he needs to be Luke Brooks,” is the way Potter sees it.
“Let him develop as a player. I don’t want to build Luke up to being what those other guys were. I just want Luke to develop as he is going to develop. He will decide how far he goes.
“Off the field, he is a quiet kid, but he has good sense of humour and he is really popular among the players. But, on the field, he just goes about his business with not much fuss at all. He just gets the job done directing the team around the park.”
But next Friday night, Brooks will be back in the Under-20s (from where in April he was chosen for this year’s National Youth Cup State of Origin). It is because of the farcical salary cap rules, which will be revised in the off-season.
The Tigers play South Sydney. And, because the Rabbitohs are in contention for the Minor Premiership, there will be no exemptions for the talented youngster – even though the fans, who missed Saturday’s game, can’t wait to check out his obvious talents.
But there will be plenty of chances in the future.
Only a few weeks ago Wests signed him until the end of 2017.
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright!
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