Luke Keary is a three-time premiership winner that is just days away from playing his 200th NRL game.
But there was a time he thought he was “done with rugby league.”
After a “sliding doors” moment with the Rabbitohs mid-2014 which cleared the path for a halves partnership with Adam Reynolds, Keary went on to win his first premiership after just 22 NRL games.
He learnt quickly though that in first grade, with the ups there’s plenty of downs too.
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Keary was on his way out of the Rabbitohs in 2016 — and rugby league altogether — until the Roosters called “out of the blue” with the perfect opportunity.
A short-term deal where he could just do his thing without being the superstar. He was meant to be a “stopgap” solution, but as it turned out he ended up being one of the Roosters’ most important players during their dominant 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Speaking on the Fox League Podcast, Keary admitted the thought of playing his 200th game on Saturday is “a bit surreal.”
“You don’t think about it too much then you get to the week of it and all my mates from Queensland want to come down, my parents are getting tickets so it’s actually pretty cool,” he added.
“You do a little bit of reflection on your career and where you’ve come from, so it’s a cool achievement.”
FOX LEAGUE PODCAST – LUKE KEARY
Three-time premiership-winner Luke Keary joins the podcast ahead of his 200th NRL game to reflect on his career. He reveals his ‘sliding doors’ moment, opens up on the time he thought he was done with the game – and nearly made the switch to rugby union. He also takes us inside that 2018 Grand Final win and speaks on his future. Listen NOW >
There’s plenty to reflect on — three grand finals and a Clive Churchill Medal top the list of achievements.
But before Keary, 31, was a superstar playmaker, he was jus a kid working at Kennards Hire that the Rabbitohs gave an opportunity to as a favour for a manager.
Here is the making of Luke Keary. The highs, the lows… and the VB coaster that delivered him to the Roosters.
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Before Keary became a Rabbitoh he was running around for the Burleigh Bears. And before that he was a budding rugby union player.
Keary was always “a rugby league boy in a rugby league family” but he played a lot of union while attending Oakhill College in Castle Hill, Sydney.
He is a former Australian rugby schoolboy but it was a lack of pathways that put him on a route to the Rabbitohs — via Burleigh.
“They didn’t really have a clear path into Super Rugby at the time so I took off to Queensland — Dad said ‘pack your bags and go’,” he recalled.
“I ended up going to Burleigh and had a really fun year there. I played a little bit of Colts, a little bit of Queensland Cup and trained a little bit with the Titans.
“I probably had a bit more fun than footy but it was a cool experience. I got to grow up pretty quickly living by yourself out of home.”
After a year in Burleigh, Keary thought that a career in the NRL just might not happen for him.
That was until his manager got a favour from the Rabbitohs.
“It’s a funny story,” he said.
“I was about to finish after that year, I wasn’t really going anywhere and my manager at the time had Ryan Carr (now interim coach of the Dragons).
“He had just signed with Souths and as he was doing the deal my manager said ‘we’ve got a kid up in Queensland, can he come down and train with the 20s?’”
Keary joined the Bunnies on a train-and-trial opportunity with the under 20s team in 2012. But as he recalled, “it all just went super quick and I was training full time within six months.”
Michael Maguire was the NRL coach at the time, but it was under 20s coach Ben Gardner — now NRL assistant at Penrith — who set Keary up for the trajectory that he was about to hit.
“He turned everything around for me,” Keary said about Gardner.
“He’s a hardworking man, he taught me about work ethic — as did ‘Madge’ — but Ben was the first to get a hold of me and say ‘this is how you train tough and play tough.’ He taught me a lot and in those six months with him it felt like five years of development.”
Keary impressed so much in his first couple of months in the Rabbitohs’ 20s side that Maguire started inviting him in to train with the first grade squad.
He juggled that with his job at Kennards Hire, university and 20s training.
“I still remember the day I got to walk into Kennards in Kellyville to tell the boss I got my first full-time gig, which was about half way through the season in 2012,” he said.
It wasn’t long before it was time for Maguire to pull the trigger. Keary made his NRL debut off the bench in the Rabbitohs’ Round 12 clash against the Knights.
“I still remember I was at mum and dad’s when ‘Madge’ rang me to tell me I was playing. On the day I was so nervous and I remember watching the Mike Tyson documentary to get myself ready,” he laughed.
“I started on the bench and I remember walking up the sideline to go on and Willie Mason was sitting on the sideline chirping at me so I was pretty worried and then the kick-off, Kade Snowden went straight over the top of me.
“It was a bit of a welcome to first grade moment.”
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2014 — THE BREAKOUT YEAR
After a solid back end of 2013, Maguire hatched out a plan to move John Sutton to an edge and play Keary in the halves with Adam Reynolds.
But then Keary tore his pectoral in the inaugural Nines competition and spent 18 weeks on the sideline.
“It was pretty devastating,” he said.
“I felt like I had a really good pre-season, I went over to Arizona with ‘Reyno’ to do a bit with the Suns.”
When Keary returned, the original plan was set for some tweaks. There was even a stage where he and Reynolds were going to end up in a shootout for the No.7 jersey.
That was until Sutton got injured.
It’s what Keary believes was a “sliding doors” moment that gave him and Reynolds to form a premiership-winning partnership.
“Madge put me on the bench for a game and the Rabbitohs were kind of bumbling along,” he said of his return game.
“We were playing Parramatta and I think he hooked ‘Reyno’ and I played the last 20 minutes at halfback.
“I still remember during the (following) week he said ‘we’re going to play Reyno the first half in Canberra and you’ll probably come on in the second half.’ I was thinking ‘what’s going on here?’
“John Sutton got injured in the 10th minute of that game and we ended up winning by 50. It was the end of that.
“‘Sutto’ was out for six to eight weeks and me and ‘Reyno’ got a couple of months together. It wasn’t us, but the team just clicked from there.
“It was a bit of a sliding doors one because anything could’ve happened that night.
“‘Reyno’ was great through the whole thing and ‘Sutto’ was even better — he kind of mentored me through that whole period. It was a bit of a weird moment in that year with how it turned out.”
Keary was still just 22-years old when he played in the grand final — the one that broke the Rabbitohs’ 43-year premiership drought.
“I look back and I had no idea what I was doing,” he admitted.
“I was 20 games in, if I was on a team not winning I probably wouldn’t have been there.
“I was just riding off the boys. I had a heap of energy at the time and I was just running around picking fights, chasing the ball and trying to tackle people. I had no idea what I was doing.
“I was lucky I was in that team at that period of time. I rode that wave and probably thought it was easy… the next few years straightened me out.
“2015 and 2016 were really tough years. I learnt quickly about being a first-grader, what it’s all about and how hard it is to get there in the end,” he conceded.
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SIGNING WITH THE RIVALS
Keary’s time at South Sydney didn’t end on the best note.
He was down on confidence and wasn’t sure what to do next. He even came very close to making the witch to rugby union… Until the Roosters called at the eleventh hour.
“At one point I thought I was done with rugby league,” Keary conceded.
“I was close with ‘Cheik’ (Michael Cheika) and (close to) going over to the Waratahs. I still remember going to his house and going over video.
“I spoke to a few NRL clubs and a couple were close but the last week the Roosters rang me out of the blue.”
The Roosters were coming off a horror year where they finished second last. Keary was never meant to be the answer — he believes he was just their “stopgap” solution for the time being.
The Roosters wanted him for just 2017, but he pushed for a two-year deal. It’s a good thing he did too given what he achieved in 2018.
“I think I was more of a stopgap for them for that year,” he said of joining the club in 2017.
“I don’t know why, it just felt right. I didn’t think it was going to be a long-term thing, I thought it was going to be a year maybe two. I think they wanted a year and I said ‘I’ve got to come for two.’
“I just thought maybe this is what I need. There were a couple of clubs that wanted me to come as their long-term halfback and I just didn’t think I was ready, to be honest.
“If you asked me the two years before that I would’ve said ‘yep, I’m going to be the long-term answer for someone.’ But at that time, my confidence wasn’t there, I didn’t think I was a long-term answer for any NRL club.
“I thought this was perfect, I can go to a club where I’m not the superstar of the team. I can go in and learn and try and make an impact.”
Six years later he’s still in the red, white and blue — with two more premierships to show for it too.
Looking back, joining the Roosters was the “best decision” he’s ever made.
“I’ve made lifelong friends, I’ve had great success — which is cool — I’ve started a family out here and live in the Eastern Suburbs,” Keary said.
“Everything has been really good. It was a gut-feel decision and I didn’t think it was long-term but it’s turned out to be probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”
The Roosters are known as the glamour club of the NRL and they pull out all stops to woo their recruitment targets.
Not for Keary, the “stopgap” guy though, who was unofficially offered a contract via a VB coaster.
“I was sitting in a pub in Botany with my manager and he just tossed me over a beer coaster and on the back it had two years and x-dollars and he said ‘mate, that’s your deal’,” he laughed.
“I put it in my pocket… I should’ve kept the coaster.”
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Keary sums up the 2018 and 2019 as “special.”
The Roosters became the first team since the Broncos in the 90s to win back-to-back premiership and it’s no coincidence that success came when two-time Dally M medal winner Cooper Cronk arrived.
Keary called Cronk “one of a kind” and believes “he is one of the best players to ever play the game.”
“He was a big influence on me and the Roosters,” he added.
The two formed a lethal halves combination that were a part of a great rugby league story in 2018.
Cronk suffered a shoulder injury in the preliminary final. It was later revealed he had broken his scapula but in the week leading up to the grand final no one outside of the Roosters knew the severity of the injury and there was constant speculation around whether he would play or not.
Cronk did play — with one arm — in the No.23 jersey with back-up half Mitchell Aubusson shifting to an edge.
It was assumed by many that the Roosters had that plan all along and Aubusson named at No.7 was a bit of smoke and mirrors.
But Keary revealed not even he knew if Cronk was playing until after the warm-up.
“For the few days afterwards it was ‘OK Coops isn’t playing so let’s come up with a plan.’ We knew behind the scenes though they were trying to doctors to see if he could play,” he shared.
“I remember warming up… they put a few local (anaesthetic injections) in and he said ‘I’ll let you know in the warm-up.’ He’s come out, is moving his shoulder and kicking and said ‘I think I’ll play.’ Probably after the warm-up was when they (the medical team and coaching staff) said he can play. It was just a wild week.
“The team was in such a sweet spot. The year before really hurt us so we looked at each other and went ‘this is our time here.’
“Looking back there was probably a lot of pressure on me but I didn’t feel it at the time because the team was so close and we had a lot of belief.
With Cronk unable to execute plays — or do much physically at all — the scene was set for Keary to have the performance of his career.
And he did, sealed with a field goal that took the Roosters out to more than a two converted try lead.
Keary won the Clive Churchill Medal, but he believes conductor Cronk still had a lot to do with the win.
“I even remember the field goal. He said to me ‘field goal mate’ and the next play I just kicked it,” he said.
“He wouldn’t tell you these either, he’s too humble.”
And speaking of humble, Keary didn’t have too much to say about his man of the match performance.
“I don’t think about it much now but after my career I’ll probably be like ‘oh that’s a really good achievement’,” he said.
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A TASTE OF ORIGIN… AND MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
Keary was set to make his State of Origin debut in 2019. He had been in and around the squad for the two previous series’ but after winning his second premiership, it was his time.
That was until, he suffered a head knock. His history with concussion meant he needed to sit out for six weeks.
“I spent 2017 and 2018 with New South Wales. I was close a couple of times to getting a game and then 2019 was like ‘righto, it’s time to play’,” he said.
“I remember the week before, I got knocked out on the Saturday and I was ruled out for the whole series.
“I felt like I was at the peak of my powers through that part of the season so that one hurt.”
Keary made his long-awaited Origin debut in game one of the 2020 series. But he is yet to add more games to his tally.
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They’re a part of being a professional athlete.
Keary has ruptured his ACL in both knees, has torn his pectoral, broken his jaw and had hamstring and ankle injuries in between
But put ‘Luke Keary’ and ‘injuries’ in the same sentence and most immediately think of concussion.
He admitted the ACL in 2021 was “tough” because “I felt like I had given away a big opportunity… I was 28 or 29 at the time and felt like ‘this is where you do your stuff’.”
He also had to play through an ankle injury in 2019 finals series that sticks out to him, but the concussions are “different.”
“Concussion ones are public so that’s difficult on my mum and dad, my wife and things like that. A lot of people want to talk about it so they’re a different ball,” he said.
Every time Keary suffers a head knock, rugby league fans hold their breath. Probably because the speculation on his future begins immediately.
And to his credit, the headlines don’t bother him.
“I understand the concern around it, the commentary — you’re not going to not talk about it,” he said.
“It doesn’t bug me… But it’s a part of the game.
“I felt like I did a really good job of compartmentalising everything and thinking of who I can go to. That was professionals — listen to them and block out all the other stuff.”
The Roosters are usually finetuning things or resting players at this time of year in preparation for a big finals series.
Instead, they sit 12th and need to win every remaining game to keep their finals hopes alive.
Keary doesn’t have a definite answer to the questions so many rugby league fans are asking about the Roosters but he can say without hesitation that they’ve underperformed this year.
“We just haven’t been at our absolute best at times,” he said.
“One or two haven’t been good or then two or three (others) haven’t been good but to be competitive you need 13 or 14 who are in real good form.
“You need your spine clicking and we just haven’t been good enough… Personally I haven’t been good enough, as a team we haven’t been good enough.”
Keary comes off contract at the end of 2024, meaning from November 1 he can field offers from rivals — unless the Roosters lock him in beforehand.
The questions about his future will come thick and fast over the next couple of months, but don’t expect an answer until next year. Except on retirement — at this stage, Keary looks set to play on.
“I haven’t thought about it too much. I’m at that age now where you don’t have to make a decision early,” he said.
“I’m at that age where you go ‘how long do you want to go? Do you think you have another one in you? How are you mentally? How are you physically?’ I’ll ask those questions of myself after the season — probably in the pre-season.
“Then ‘how are the Roosters going? Where are they at? Who’s coming through? Where do they see their future?’ There’s so many questions.
“This has been the best time of my life, the last six or seven years at the Roosters. Out of respect to them you need to go see what the club is doing and then talk to yourself personally.
“But to honest, physically this year I’ve felt really good. I’ve been able to play every game, haven’t been too sore and don’t feel like I’m slowing down too much. If you ask me now I’d say I’m ready to go again.”
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