Since he first pulled on a Warriors jersey in 2006, back rower Micheal Luck has been the epitome of a champion rugby league player for the club. Ben Stanley spent time with Luck in his final week as a Warrior, and reflected on what he has meant to the club.
Like a ghost that still walks, the image of Micheal Luck will linger long around Mt Smart Stadium after he finishes his first-grade career this afternoon.
That black and white strapping around his head. That upright, old-fashioned way of carrying the ball up. The orders barked so loudly to his 12 team-mates that the first few rows in the crowd can hear clear as a bell.
More than a footballer though, more than the man who will wear the number 13 on his back against the Raiders today; Luck is one of those great figures in sport.
A selfless individual, admired by team-mates, coaches, front office staff, fans, and media alike. Someone who has given back to the game twice as much as he will take away - a list of injuries a mile long, sprains, aches and niggles that he will likely carry with him for the rest of his life.
Yet unlike the Spartans at Thermopylae or Crockett at the Alamo, Luck has little to gain when he makes his last stand at Mt Smart this afternoon.
Guts it out for 80 minutes, and do your club proud, but ultimately know the season, and your final game - the 150th for the club, has been in vain. That 2012 for the Warriors will always represent failure; a coach losing his job, a Grand Final team the year before floundering and a host of players bloodied before their rightful time due to an astonishing injury toll. It's not the send-off that Luck deserves, but the one he's going to get. For a bloke like the rugged 30-year-old Queenslander, well, that's just the way it goes.
"That's footy, isn't it?" Luck told Sunday News. "You have the high highs, and low lows. When you're in a club like this when you are one team in one country, there's a lot of expectation, attention and pressure. Everything is magnified.
"Obviously if you're writing the chapter on how you want it to finish, this is not how you'd pen it - but that's how it is."
Praise for the Gatton-born battler has been rife this week. And why not? In what will be an 11-year, 226-game NRL career, he's battled through 13,622 on-field minutes - that's nearly 9 total days on the footy field, made an incredible 7082 tackles, made 12,553 metres in 1783 runs. A renown tackle machine, Luck once held the NRL record of 74 tackles a game, against the Storm in 2009.
"I've been at a lot of clubs as a player, and I've never seen a player have so much influence and affect on an entire club, not just the football staff, but the office as well," Warriors caretaker boss Tony Iro said.
"Everything good we've done, he's had his fingerprints all over. He's brings everything that a club will want in a player, both on and off the field. I can't speak highly enough of him, and it's devastating that he's leaving us.
"The true measure of the guy is any other bloke, with what he's carrying now injury-wise, would not be playing, but he's still fronting up and doing his best for the club."
It's easy to get sentimental about Luck, but it shouldn't be forgotten that little was really known, or expected of the North Queenslander when he arrived in Auckland in late 2005.
Then just 24, Luck had 76 first-grade games to his name for the Cowboys, but was largely an off-the-bench player; a bloke who was certainly NRL standard, but needing a real home.
It would be Mt Smart Stadium. Luck quickly got into his work at Mt Smart, playing every single game for the Warriors the following year, and winning the Clubman of the Year at the end of year awards.
"I came over here with my eyes open," he said. "[But] from the moment I landed, everyone's been great. It's been such an amazing time here, and some experiences I'd never have had the opportunity to do, had I always stayed in North Queensland.
"It's a place and a club that I'll look back with very fond memories. It's been great for me."
Last year's Grand Final is an obvious bright spot, but for Luck, the times he has been most proud of are those when the team, collectively, have battled through adversity.
"We've gone through slumps over the years when we've lost four in a row, and you learn how to be tough in those years," said Luck, who counts skipper Simon Mannering, Stacey Jones and Cowboys hard man Paul Bowman as his favourite players to play alongside.
"You're probably friendless and you've got to go out and earn that respect back. It's a bit masochist - but I enjoy that.
"I enjoy getting through those hard times, and the sense of pride I feel coming through the other side of that, still in one piece - that's what's made it worthwhile."
Back rowers Ben Henry, along with Elijah Taylor, have been pinned by the Warriors as eventual replacements for Luck.
Both young men certainly fit the build: selfless, hard-working individuals. Hard-tackling players with a gratefulness and nature that has impressed many in the Warriors front office. Being compared to Luck is absolute flattery, according to Henry.
"He's a straight-up dude," the NRL rookie said.
"He'll tell you what you're doing wrong, and he'll tell you how to fix it. At the end of the day, he wants to win, and it's not a one-man sport; it's thirteen guys out there all trying to achieve the same goal."
Could there be any richer praise for Luck, who will leave the Warriors for a front-office job in Townsville? For the man, it's all about gratitude.
"I honestly believe that I'd rather be doing this any day of the week than most other jobs," he said.
"I'm just very, very lucky to do this for so long, but, yeah, sad when I take the boots off for the last time on Sunday night."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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