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Pressure Points: Luke Brooks might have been held back by the Tigers - but he'll have no excuses at Manly

29th November, 2023
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29th November, 2023
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Luke Brooks is perhaps the most intriguing player in the NRL. He’s played over 200 games of first grade, but nobody really knows if he’s any good or not.

Now, having signed for Manly, we’re about to find out if Luke Brooks Island was just something that needed a beach to complete it – or an overhyped resort that cost a lot but didn’t deliver.

His career to date would be widely regarded as a failure, but most people also acknowledge that a lot of that failure isn’t really his fault.

Moreover, the central criticism as a player at the Wests Tigers wasn’t that he wasn’t good, it was that he wasn’t as good as the pay cheque he was on. Patently, that’s the Tigers’ fault, not that of Luke Brooks.

On top of that, he was part of a generation that included James Tedesco and Mitchell Moses, both of whom left and excelled, while Brooks stayed and, err, didn’t. Again, it’s not really Brooks’ fault that other players did well after leaving the Wests Tigers.

Let’s try and cut through the bluster. Here’s what we can say about him with confidence.

Brooks has underwhelmed given the expectations that he had following his Rookie of the Year start in 2014, but that has to be caveated with those around him, who have never been good. A half playing behind a beaten pack tends to look bad.

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Go look at the list of his most common teammates and it is a damning indictment of the quality levels. 160 games with David Nofoaluma, 114 with Alex Twal, 86 with Sauaso Sue and 80 each with Michael Chee-Kam and Kevin Naiqama.

It’s not that they’re bad players, but they’re also not world beaters. Only Chris Lawrence (108) would be above the ‘honest pro’ category.

Also on 205 games for one club is Jack de Belin, who gets Tyson Frizell, Gareth Widdop, Jason Nightingale, Tariq Sims and Josh Dugan in his top teammates list. All played rep footy at a serious level.

This isn’t to compare Brooks and de Belin’s abilities, but you can see who had better support around them, and that matters.

The Tigers haven’t made the finals in over a decade (in case you haven’t heard) but in the years when they have been even close to decent, Brooks was their best player, like when they finished ninth in 2018 and he won Dally M Halfback of the Year.

It’s with this context that Brooks enters the defining stage of his career. He’s about to turn 29 and should enter his prime years, and finally has a set up alongside him that should complement his abilities rather than detract from them.

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Luke Brooks of the Wests Tigers

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

For the first time since Benji Marshall left at the end of 2020, Brooks won’t be the senior half at the club, with Daly Cherry-Evans still calling the shots. All the five eighth will have to do is run and create.

On top of that, he has a pack that might actually win the floor sometimes, plus one of the best fullbacks in the world running off his hip on whatever side of the field he decides to play on.

Indeed, even if Tom Trbojevic gets injured – spoiler alert: he will – then the back-ups, whether Reuben Garrick or Tolu Koula, will still be better than anyone he’s worked with at the Tigers since Tedesco left.

There’s an argument that Manly have a top four spine with Brooks on board, especially given the improvement in Lachlan Croker, and if they continue with the style of play that Anthony Seibold favoured in 2023, with fast rucks and quick spreads, then they might end up as the best team to watch.

Here’s the thing about Brooks, too. Even when he was poor at the Tigers, his numbers, when taken on a per possession basis, were still really good.

The problem tended to be that he didn’t get enough ball. In 2022, for example, the year that he last featured as a 6, Brooks was above average for line breaks assists and line engagements, and that was in a Tigers team that were stone motherless last and gave him next to no assistance.

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(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Brooks has no excuses now. DCE is the undoubted leader and will take all the pressure off him, allowing the licence to create and play without the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He should get good ball out of a pack that will prioritise speed on the floor. He has strike backrowers on his hip, the fastest backline in the league outside that and as good a fullback as he could wish for.

With that, however, comes a different sort of pressure. At the Tigers, it was all about his pay cheque, the dysfunctional environment and his place as a symbol of all that was wrong. Lose and it was his fault, even when, as discussed, it often wasn’t.

Now, he’s set up to succeed. Manly’s salary cap is designed to win in the here and now with a coach who has been backed in to recruit to his style.

The goal has to be to open the Premiership window again before Cherry-Evans, who turns 35 before the season starts, retires. That means now or next year, with the captain’s contract up at the end of 2025.

Brooks might be the final cog that makes it possible. He’s got nowhere to hide on the Northern Beaches.

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