NRL: Long road back to first grade for Warriors veterans Issac Luke and Adam Blair
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/112728089/-

2019-05-15 01:17:51

OPINION: It's not impossible, but Issac Luke and Adam Blair's road back to NRL prosperity is being stymied by both rising talent, and the undefeated hand of Father Time.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney has opted to leave more than 550 NRL games of experience out of his 17 this week.

Now Luke and Blair face the biggest challenge of their respective careers to date: forcing their way back into first grade while both being on the wrong side of 30.

The sad reality for the Warriors' veterans is that rugby league is a young man's game.

And while there are outliers, neither have shown this season that they're up to the task of playing on at the highest level much longer.

The Warriors entered 2019 with the second oldest playing group in the competition, with an average age of just over 25-years-old.

Blair is 33 while Luke is 31. It's the latter who faces the toughest road back.

Luke could yet ask for an early release all together, given the Warriors have exceptional depth at hooker - so much, in fact, they refused to pay Luke what he demanded at the back end of 2018, the two parties eventually agreeing to a lesser one-year deal than he had hoped for.

At his best, Luke was one of the game's best dummy-half players.

Today, he is a shell of his former self.

His poor form coincided with the emergence of young-gun Nate Roache and for the second consecutive week, he has been dropped in favour of the 23-year-old.

Karl Lawton is also ahead of Luke on the depth chart, named again to come off the bench after a staring role in the Warriors' last-start win.

And then there is Jazz Tevaga. He's a specialist middle man, but Kearney has consistently gone with  at hooker during injury crises.

So where does that leave the Luke?

This time last year he was one of the Warriors' best. He looked fit, fast and had seemed to have matured into a real game manager type dummy-half - what a difference 12 months can make.

Luke will not be a Warrior for much longer.

Roache enters Friday under an injury cloud so he could yet get another crack at proving his worth.

But at best he will be restricted to a bench role, with Kearney and his staff clearly preferring the younger quicker No 9 over the ageing former Kiwis star.

And what about Blair, cruelly dropped just three games shy of 300 NRL appearances?

The former Kiwis captain would be the first to tell you he has been below his best in 2019.

In his eight games to date, Blair is averaging just over 55m per game and has just one line break to go along with his lone four pointer.

He has also had games this year where he managed just one run and another where he had six hit-ups for just over 30m.

That's simply not good enough for a veteran back-rower.

However it must be said Blair's defence has been on point.

He's made more than 250 tackles, several of them crucial one-on-one stops, and his tackling efficiency is up toward 90 per cent.

But after being stood down through suspension last week, Blair's poor form caught up with him as he was left out entirely for Friday's clash with the Panthers.

After just one win in five weeks of football, there were always going to be casualties.

Speaking about his sidelined veterans on Tuesday, Kearney said forcing their way back into the first grade side was as simple as playing quality football at reserve grade level - but sadly that's not the only contributing factor.

Blair's road back to the NRL, like Luke, is somewhat blocked by the emergence of younger, hungrier players - at least that's what the eye ball test tells us.

Isaiah Papali'i, Tohu Harris, Lachlan Burr and more recently Ligi Sao are yet to cheat the Warriors on effort.

They might not all have Blair's natural ability, but they have age on their side and a noticeable hunger to win, something that used to be a pillar of the former Storm enforcer's game.

Still, Blair is signed until the end of 2020 and is a favourite of Kearney's.

He's just the one injury or an indifferent performance from someone else away, so his eventual return to the starting group is more likely than his fellow benched stalwart.

Both Luke and Blair have mountains to climb, and both are capable.

But in the NRL form, not experience, decides who makes the cut on game day.

And put simply neither are hitting that form at present.

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