It was about late April when Kevin Locke started to get a little worried.
After playing three games in a row to start the season, he suddenly found himself back where it all began – swapping the black and grey of the Warriors jumper for the bright blue and green of the Auckland Vulcans in reserve grade.
It was a familiar feeling for the 22-year-old, who started his rugby league career, unlike most, playing in the New South Wales Cup for the then Auckland Lions in 2007 before being drafted into the Toyota Cup.
But it certainly wasn’t a welcome feeling.
“I was worried,” Locke tells Big League. “There were so many players in good form right across the team, especially in the position I was playing – the likes of Lance Hohaia and Glenn Fisiiahi. With star players like that
it keeps you on your toes.
“It was a bit of an awakening. Going back down to NSW Cup certainly just puts the message across that you can’t get ahead of yourself and you just have to work hard. When I got the opportunity to play NRL again I took it with both hands and didn’t want to let it go, and I’m still here now.
“I’ve just been working hard with the likes of Ivan [Cleary, Warriors coach] and Tony Iro. Tony’s always on my case out on the field and without his support I wouldn’t be the player that I am now. He’s supported me through the season and he’s just been very good and helped me in many ways.”
Locke’s commitment to bettering his game is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff. Locke raves about his relationship with Warriors assistant coach Iro – who coached him in his breakout Toyota Cup season in 2008 – and the New Zealand great is happily watching the fullback come of age.
“With Kevin, it’s always been about trying to get his full focus on footy,” Iro explains. “This year specifically. He’ll admit that this is the first year that he’s really knuckled down and become a professional. I think with a lot of the kids who have early success – and he’s never really had to work hard because he’s that naturally gifted – it’s just taken a little bit longer to realise his true potential. He’s always been a good player, but I think now we’ve seen a consistency in his game and he’s a better player for it.”
Far from using his demotion as a motivational tool, the coaching staff simply felt Locke wasn’t playing well enough to justify his place in the team. But he turned it on as he tried to force his way back in, and as Iro says, Locke has easily surpassed the form of most other fullbacks in the competition.
“If you’re not playing well enough you’re not playing well enough,” Iro says. “It’s a bit of a realisation that some of them come to. If they stop working at their games then blokes start overtaking them. He’s actually working really hard at his game. In my mind he’s one of the top three fullbacks in the game now. He’s always had that potential to do that but he’s finally worked out what he needs to do to play that type of football.”
The Toyota Cup connection in the Warriors team is a constant help for Locke, who is surrounded by youngsters living the dream just like he is.
In a team of 17 this week, six have had some prior experience together in the under-20s, and Locke’s elusive style of football has been particularly complemented by halfback Shaun Johnson, with the two combining to cause some headaches in the back end of the season.
“Shaun’s just got that touch-style of footy to him. He’s a man who can create something out of nothing,” Locke says. “He’s just an awesome player who’s come through the under-20s. I played a bit of touch with him so I sort
of read how he plays it as well. Those fellas just make me look good and I try to make them look good as well.”
The Warriors system, which has seen the successful promotion of guys like Locke, Johnson, Russell Packer, Ben Matulino and Bill Tupou to first grade, has been one of the club’s biggest strengths throughout the past few years.
“A lot of these under-20s boys came through together… they’ve actually played a lot of footy together now, and spent a few years together,” Iro adds. “We’re still a young team but we’ve got a lot of history and experience together.
They know each others’ games, they know what makes each other click, and they enjoy each others’ company. That’s just part of developing together.”
As for Locke, coming up against the best fullback in the competition this weekend is the icing on the cake to what has been a roller-coaster season.
He expects the Storm will come at him with vigour, with his small frame an easy target – but as usual, he’s preparing to put his body on the line as he does every weekend.
“It’s very emotional, but also very exciting to be in finals footy,” he says. “It’s a big buzz. To have the opportunity to play one game out from the Grand Final is certainly a highlight of my career.
“You’re going to get bashed at the back. My size, it doesn’t really help. But with footwork and speed I try to avoid all of that.”