Peter Sterling: Luke Lewis the next NSW captain?

When it comes to game analysis and rugby league strategy, there are few who rival the passion and experience of Peter Sterling.

First a game-breaking player at the highest level, now the brains behind the Channel Nine commentary team - it's fair to say 'Sterlo' has earned the right to have an opinion.

This season, footy fans, we'll get a chance to delve into the mind of the man himself.

'Sterlo' is now a permanent member of the NRL.com team. Stay tuned for his column each and every Wednesday throughout the season.


We'll also get exclusive team predictions, player analysis and match previews from Sterlo and our panel of experts (including Brad Fittler, John Gibbs and Jarryd Hayne) throughout the Origin period.


When Brad Fittler and Andrew Johns describe something in the Rugby league world as the “real deal”, it seems logical to sit up and take notice.

That is how they described the Penrith Panthers over the weekend following the club's impressive 26-18 win over the Tigers. It was the mountain men’s fourth straight victory, putting them alongside Melbourne and Manly as the only clubs to achieve such a sequence so far.

Whilst I’m yet to be as strongly convinced as Freddy and Joey, I do see the right kind of balance in the Panthers' line-up that has the potential to lead to real success.

Within this personnel there are also the influential types of player who can prove to be the difference.

The obvious standout is skipper Petero Civinoceva who, since coming south, has been professional, inspirational and a true leader in every sense of the word.

In Michael Jennings they possess the most dynamic ball-runner in the game. A player with his combination of power and balance only comes along very rarely.

Halfback Luke Walsh is starting to make smarter decisions on a more consistent basis and, as a No. 7, that is an absolute necessity. In previous seasons there were too many 6 out of 10 performances in his game. Now we are seeing more 7 1/2's and 8’s on a weekly basis.

At the back, Lachlan Coote has developed into a class performer in a short period of time. He is excellent under the high ball, a wonderful support player and not afraid to put his body on the line.

What is particularly impressive is how quick he is with his hands, which we saw evidence of on a couple of occasions against the Tigers.

Firstly, when scoring his opening try, it was only this speed that allowed him to collect a pass well behind him and get it in a position to ground.

CLICK HERE to see Coote's speed near the line.

Later in the contest, he moved across in general play to field a high bouncing ball from an opposition kick. It was sitting up in a way that re-gathering was going to make him a vulnerable target and open to a mistake when hit. The speed that he was able to drag the ball down and get it and his body in a safe position was again tremendous.

However in my opinion, the most significant player in the Penrith ranks is local boy Luke Lewis.

He was again their best on the weekend, and continues to show us that he is arguably the most complete footballer in the competition.

Since debuting in 2001, he has developed from a wide scouting centre/winger into an all-round contributor completely suited anywhere around the football. In fact, he is now one of those rare players equally adept and dangerous whether running or passing the ball.

This was ideally illustrated in his involvement in setting up Coote for the fullback’s second try against Wests.

In the 64th minute, Luke ran an ‘outside-in’ line coming back from the right-hand side towards where Luke Walsh was shaping to pass. This in itself is an awfully difficult angle to run. It is so much easier to be drifting away from the ball and receiving it across the body.

To catch the ball at speed when you are running at the passer takes plenty of skill, especially when you are aimed at a collision and not open space.

Lewis headed initially at Gareth Ellis before veering late at another big man in Andrew Fifita. After contact, he was able to break the tackle, juggle the ball and draw the fullback. Instead of trying to score himself, he steadied beautifully to hold up the ball for the unmarked Coote.

CLICK HERE to see this impressive try-assist.

His awareness and ultimate delivery was pure footballer.

So too was putting centre Adrian Purtell into a hole moments earlier, gifting the team the field position to score that try.

With Penrith struggling to come out of their own end, Lewis feigned to pass to an inside decoy, before straightening at the defensive line. By doing so, he created an overlap and put the Tigers' Blake Ayshford and Beau Ryan in two minds. Purtell was able to burst onto a short pass and into open space.

CLICK HERE to see Lewis' playmaking at the line.

Knowing what angles to run is a big part of Luke’s game, and already this season he has developed a successful combination with off-season import, hooker Kevin Kingston.

In round one against the Raiders, he positioned himself wide to the left before spearing back on the inside after Kingston had stretched the defence with his cross-field run.

CLICK HERE to watch this play unfold.

The same ploy was again successful the following week against the Cowboys with a similar dart from dummy-half opening up an inside diagonal run for Lewis to score.

CLICK HERE to watch this try against the Cowboys.

Whilst Luke is an excellent athlete, I believe his most valuable commodity is his competitiveness and 'never-say-die' attitude. He treats every play as though it is the last and most important one of the game.

In round four against the Knights, he was prepared to complete his kick-chase into the in-goal even though it appeared certain the ball was running dead. When other players had already dropped off, his perseverance was rewarded with a freakish bounce and a four-pointer.

CLICK HERE to see this freakish try.

So far this year, I’ve deliberately refrained from talking Origin prospects and a possible Blues line-up as it seemed way too premature for such speculation. However, after seven rounds, selection is not far away and I’m happy to break my duck.

Luke Lewis would be my first NSW player chosen, and he would be my lock-forward. Furthermore, dependent on how selectors are keen to use Kurt Gidley, I’d seriously consider him as captaincy material.