Everyone loves local heroes, even more so when they come from provincial towns around New Zealand. Case in point, Issac Luke.
He’s as proud of his Taranaki hometown of Hawera as anyone could be, townsfolk and those from the surrounding district equally proud he’s one of their own.
Hawera (population about 11,500) is the birthplace of a number of well-known New Zealanders, among them Luke’s fellow Kiwi rugby league international Elijah Taylor, author Fiona Kidman, golfer Michael Campbell, comedian Ben Hurley, former All Blacks John Mitchell and Conrad Smith and ex-Silver Ferns netballer Adine Wilson. Perhaps, though, the man known as ‘Bully’ is the most readily identifiable Hawera product of all.
For him there’s nothing better than “going home” to reconnect with his whanau and be back in his special place. While his sporting career has seen him based in Wellington, Sydney and now Auckland, his heart is always in Taranaki and specifically Hawera.
That’s why the first NRL game ever played in the province is so special for him.
He’s had huge moments in his career, not least winning the Rugby League World Cup final in 2008 and two Four Nations titles in 2010 and 2014, but playing for the Vodafone Warriors at Yarrow Stadium on May 21 is right up there with them.
Being closer to family and Hawera was a critical factor in him signing with the Vodafone Warriors after a stellar 188-game career with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Indeed, once he was back in New Zealand after the Kiwis’ England tour, his priority was to make a road trip home.
He was back in the province again in February when he and Vodafone Warriors managing director Jim Doyle made a whistle-stop trip to promote the club’s historic match against the Raiders.
A Hawera Hawks junior, Luke was able to make the 75-kilometre trip to south Taranaki to show off his place to Doyle.
“I love playing on home turf and to be able to play in the first NRL game ever played in Taranaki (against Canberra on Saturday) is a huge bonus,” he said.
“Just knowing there’ll be so many of my family and friends in the crowd on Saturday night will be really special. I can’t wait to be out there with my team-mates. It’s a big night for the club and for the game.”
Providing special inspiration, as they always do, will be Luke’s father George, koko Gavin Tamou and nanny Bluey Tamou who have “sacrificed a lot to get me to where I was hoping to go moneywise. They provided the way for me.”
It’s a way which has seen him extend his career total of NRL appearances to 197 while he has also played 36 Tests for the Kiwis since his debut in 2008.
There was blip in his international career when he missed selection in the May 6 Anzac Test against the Kangaroos, a setback Luke took on the chin. Such is his brutal honesty, he offered a personal view that he didn’t think he deserved to be selected in any case.
His sole focus he said was on working hard to rediscover his best form. He made huge steps forward in the Vodafone Warriors’ courageous display against St George Illawarra when a side shorn of many first-choice players won 26-10. Used from the bench, cool hand Luke came up with two critical plays, a flat ball giving Charlie Gubb his first NRL try and then an off load putting standoff Jeff Robson over for the only try of the second half.
He was sharp against Penrith last Saturday, too, with some threatening runs out of dummy half.
Now his singular focus is on making every moment count on Saturday night. It won’t be his first top-level match at Yarrow Stadium – he played there for the All Golds against New Zealand Maori in 2008 – but it will be by far his most significant appearance on home soil.
Born: May 29, 1987
Birtrhplace: Hawera, NZ
Junior Club: Hawera Hawks
Rep Honours: 36 Tests NZ (2008-2015), World Cup (2008 & 2013); Four Nations (2009, 2010, 2011, 2014); All Golds (2008); NZ v Cook Islands (2013)
Previous Clubs: South Sydney (2007-2015)
FG Debut: South Sydney v Melbourne, Olympic Park, June 2, 2007 (Rd 12)
Club Debut: Vodafone Warriors v Wests Tigers, Campbelltown Sports Stadium, March 5, 2016 (Rd 1)
Vodafone Warriors No: 206
NRL Games: 197 (2007-2016)
188 for South Sydney (2007-2015)
9 for Vodafone Warriors (2016)
NRL Points: 426 (39 tries, 135 goals)
414 for South Sydney (36 tries, 135 goals)
12 for Vodafone Warriors (3 tries)