Issac Luke retires from NRL, but it’s not all over yet

By Te Ao Toa
Isaac Luke spoke with Te Ao Toa.  Source / File

After 14 years and nearly 300 first grade games, Issac Luke announced his retirement from the NRL earlier this week. However, the Hāwera-born hooker has a desire to one day return home and give back to the community he credits for helping his league career.

“There’s a chance I’m going to go home and play Pā Wars. But with Covid, it’s sort of ruined a lot of it. There’s definitely a chance that I’ll get back there and represent my iwi.

“The final straw for my career will be to play with my two brothers,” Luke said.

And the 34-year old is not putting a time limit on ticking off the final few items on his career to-do list.

“In four years, my oldest son turns 18, so I wouldn’t mind having a game with him too. But, yeah, I won’t be coming home soon, but I’m pretty keen.”

“There’s the Scanlon Shield back home between Patea and Hāwera, or there’s Pā Wars, the Māori comp on Taranaki.”

Speaking with Te Ao Toa presenter and good mate Adam Blair, Luke reflected on his career.

Luke made his NRL debut for the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2007, going on to play 188 times in the famous myrtle and cardinal colours. He moved back to Aotearoa in 2016 to play for the Warriors, making 83 appearances before short stints with the Dragons and Broncos in 2020.

His time at the Rabbitohs saw him become one of the best dummy-halves in the world. He was awarded the George Piggins Medal in 2010, the award for Souths Best and Fairest.

He, unfortunately, missed the grand final in 2014 through suspension. It was the first time in 43 years the club had reached the big dance. The team subsequently won that game, with Luke, affectionately known as “Uncle Bully”, watching from the stands. Coach Michael Maguire handed his winners ring to Luke.

In a twist, many league experts were not predicting possible in 2020, his former club has made the NRL grand final again, after seeing off the Sea Eagles on Friday night.

His current side, the Wynnum-Manly Seagulls, will feature in one of the earlier games on grand final day next Sunday, in the preliminary final of Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup.

He says it will be another nice way of bringing his career to an end if they can get up again.

“They’re a massive part of the career I’ve had. Obviously, gave me my chance to actually play an NRL game and nine seasons later I was able to play 188 with them.

“I’m backing them. It will be quite the finish to my career, because I’ll play before them."

Adding to the occasion is his 2008 Rugby World Cup-winning teammate Benji Marshall who will make his second grand final appearance, and first in 16 years. Blair, Luke and Marshall all appeared in that famous win, and Luke says the passion the then young players had for their taha Māori has changed the game.

“Not being an 'eat-arse', but we changed the way haka is done now. How they’re performed. That’s how I feel.

"No one is more animated than you [Blair] and me. To be able to do that [win the RLWC in 2008], against possibly the best Australian side assembled. Credit to the coach, staff and boys that played that day.”

Luke, a comparative ‘smaller’ player in a sport of large, physical bodies, is considered one of the great hookers of the modern era and has been credited with changing the role of a hooker.

Kiwi incumbent and Melbourne Storm star Brandon Smith has said he looked up to Luke all his life and has modelled his style of play on Luke’s.

"I was 12 when I watched his first run out for the Kiwis in 2008. I just love everything about him, his aggressiveness and the way he runs the ball. That is exactly how I play the game," Smith told nrl.com in 2017.

Luke, however, says Smith himself has taken the position to another level again.

“The best thing about Brandon's game right now is he’s got Harry Grant biting at his heels.  At the Rabbitohs, I had a lot of young guys on my heels which was why I played how I did.

“Reason why he’s going so well is because he has Harry right at his feet, and he doesn’t want to give up his 9 jersey.”

Looking back on a professional career that includes 287 NRL games for South Sydney, New Zealand Warriors, St. George-Illawarra and Brisbane Broncos and 43 tests for New Zealand, Luke says his highlights were his time wearing the NZ Māori jersey.

“It was probably the pinnacle of my career. Kiwis was definitely up there, but I’ve always wanted to represent our people.

“I played in the Rotorua tournament just before I left New Zealand, and ever since I’ve been trying to play for the Māori team.

“I got to to do it the last couple of years. Kiwi’s are definitely up there, everyone wants to play for the Kiwis or the All Blacks, but for me it was playing for the Māori.”

Luke and his family have settled in Brisbane, where his wife Mickayela is from, and plans to stay involved in the game, supporting and coaching his children who are following in their father's footsteps.

Sons, Adaquix (14) and Cruz (13), are involved in NRL academies, while daughter Ava (11) has gained a league scholarship to Marsden State High, the former school of NRL legends Cameron Smith and Israel Folau.

Luke might have announced he is hanging up his boots, but Taranaki rugby league fans may not have seen the last of one of their great heroes.

“I’d love to get home and have a tourney, and give back with the people I grew up with,” he says.