Lazarus' Greek Odyssey
The mercury is high, the humidity intense, we are a mere stone’s throw away from the Sydney Football Stadium yet miles away from the dizzying heights of the NRL. Welcome to the life of former Wests Tiger Blake Lazarus now working as a personal trainer.
Far from being disappointed at his two appearances in Rugby League’s premier competition, the nephew of five-time premiership winner Glenn is more than content with his newfound career.
The 24-year-old is no stranger to gruelling preseason fitness workouts and is putting that knowledge to good use, battering your correspondent to almost total exhaustion. While his former first-grade teammates enter their first week of Rugby League’s equivalent of bootcamp, Lazarus is the one in charge, dishing out the pain. He has been up since 5am, his first client was at 5:30am and he has more sessions to run after we are finished too.
“I’m happy doing my personal training and I may go back and play with the Entrance Tigers,” Lazarus tells NRL.com.
“The hardest thing with footy is you are always competing against someone. It is tough and you don’t get any younger, you have to accept it at the end of the day there are a lot of young kids coming through and you are all vying for a position.
“I have no regrets, I had a few injuries, but I really love the personal training, despite the early starts.”
Lazarus has just returned from a trip to Vanuatu to represent Greece, which he describes as the best Rugby League tour he has ever been involved in.
The ground wasn’t packed to the rafters; it was packed to the tree branches and rooftops, with locals cramming in and finding any vantage point to watch this emerging sport.
The curtain-raiser to the international saw two local Vanuatu teams clash, big boys making even bigger hits. They hope to have their own league up and running soon too. It is a very humble beginning, but they aim to make a real fist of Rugby League.
“Vanuatu is doing some great things over there with Rugby League,” Lazarus enthuses.
“They are trying to start a competition over there, so the curtain-raiser was two local teams – they had some big fellas and they were putting on massive hits.
“There were about 5,000 fans there to watch us play and there were people hanging from trees watching the game and on rooftops, it was amazing. I hadn’t seen anything like it.”
While his famous uncle represented Australia 29 times, it had been discovered that both Glenn and Blake had Greek ancestry. And while the thought of Blake representing Greece had seemed a little strange at first, this is how emerging nations grow the game.
It all started with a phone call from Rugby League News Magazine editor Terry Liberopoulos to Newtown enquiring whether Blake would be interested in playing.
The rest they say is history.
Without Liberopoulos, Lazarus says Greece wouldn’t have a Rugby League team.
“They had done a bit of research behind my heritage and my background and they found some Greek heritage,” he said.
“I didn’t know too much about it to be honest, but Terry had approached Glenn about it a few years back at a dinner.
“If they don’t have the heritage players playing, they wouldn’t have a team to start with. So it is a big thing for them.”
Lazarus found himself playing alongside Queensland Cup players, boys from the country and guys who had represented Greece in 2003. It was a similar story for the Vanuatu team.
But for three days, they were embraced as superstars – Rugby League royalty.
“The Vanuatu people were so welcoming and they love their Rugby League,” Lazarus recalls.
“There were Broncos jerseys and NSW Cup jerseys and a few other NRL jerseys being worn, it was awesome.
“Some of the hits in the game were huge too, just as big as I’ve seen in the NRL.
“They had a couple of Queensland Cup players who were of Vanuatu heritage and a few of the local players. The standard of the game was really good; the first 25 minutes were hard and fast.
"Sure it might have dropped away in the second-half, but it was still a pretty good game of footy. They definitely have a lot to work with.”
For the record Greece were victorious 24-14, Lazarus finished with a try and three conversions.
But as players completed their third lap of the ground after the game to make sure they had shook hands with every single spectator who had turned up, not leaving the ground until more than two hours after the full-time siren had sounded, it could aptly be said that Rugby League was the real winner.
As for Blake, he’ll continue to train and torture would-be fitness enthusiasts under a scorching sun, and will happily put his hand-up to keep representing Greece if he gets the call from coach Steve Georgallis – a man he believes should be a head-coach in the NRL – but that’s another story.