Luke Lewis hit his lowest ebb late last year when a cancer scare threatened his long-term health, but eight months on the NSW back-rower has credited those toughest of times with reinvigorating his rugby league career.
One of three Cronulla forwards named in the Blues squad this week after making the switch from childhood club Penrith in the off-season, Lewis underwent surgery last August to remove a cancerous thyroid and missed the opportunity to farewell the Panthers after 12 seasons with his childhood club.
It also impacted heavily on his pre-season preparations – the 29-year-old often finding himself lagging behind as he struggled to recover from his unexpected surgery – but as Lewis told NRL.com this week, the scare also provided the motivation he had had been lacking during his final season at the foot of the mountains.
“It has really made me grateful for everything I have,” he said. “It’s hard to explain – if I didn’t have what happened to me last year with my neck… you can take things for granted. It definitely pulled me back to enjoying what you’ve been given and to enjoy the times when you’ve got them.
“I think it’s actually helped me in a lot of ways. When it’s football it’s football but when you get time away you have to get away from it and spend time with the family. It has really opened my eyes.”
Lewis said he approached his first pre-season at Cronulla with trepidation after he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last August and had taken some time to settle into his new surrounds with a recall to the NSW side the furthest thing from his mind in 2013.
“It (the pre-season) was a little bit different,” he said. “I wasn’t too sure how I was going to go. Full credit to my doctor who got it all – he got on top of [the cancer] straight away and got my thyroxine levels right.
“I wasn’t sure how I would go with training and couple of days I would be a bit tired so that was tough but I was just happy to get through the pre-season. I didn’t miss any training which was really good. I was happy with that.
“I wasn’t expecting to get back into the Blues side or anything like that but as each game went on I was learning how the team played and I feel like I’ve finally found my feet there. I’m so happy to be here.”
Ironically, while Blues captain Paul Gallen played a significant role in luring Lewis to the Sharks, it was another of his NSW teammates – debutante Andrew Fifita – that Lewis says helped him most over the summer.
“Obviously I love Gal. I’ve always loved playing alongside him and I love being skippered by him so I look forward to doing a job for him next Wednesday night. But Andrew Fifita – I had a big off-season with him,” Lewis explained. “We trained really hard together and he really pushed me. It was good to see someone of his size – 110kg – leading the fitness and doing all that sort of stuff.
“Then to see the way he has put that onto the park and earn a call-up to NSW and put up that sky-blue jersey which I know means a lot to him. He always wanted to do it as a kid and when he got that phone call he told me and the smile on his face was amazing. I was so glad to be there and be a mate with him.”
Lewis heads into next week’s opening game of the series as the Blues’ third most experienced player, behind Jarryd Hayne and Paul Gallen, with 11 games to his name but said you could never be too prepared for Origin.
“It’s hard to explain. Every Origin is different,” he said. “Every year it’s harder and faster and more physical. It’s overwhelming whenever you get another opportunity for NSW.
“You always remember your first one and you always wonder if you’ll get another opportunity. But knowing what Origin is about… I think I know how to get my head right for the game and I know what’s coming. I know what I’ll experience when it comes to fatigue and the physicality of it.
“But it’s always special and everyone that plays for NSW, especially in this group, everyone wants to play for NSW and not let anyone down.
“Queensland is still a class act – they can score tries from anywhere on the field so we know we’ve still got a big job in front of us now but we’re excited about Game One. Our focus at the moment is just making we get ourselves well for training and train well but we were close last year so I’m just looking forward to getting out there this year with this new side and come away with a win in Game One.”