Lulia: Neck injury won't finish me
Wests Tigers veteran Keith Lulia had always planned to retire from football and return home to Wollongong for a working life in the mines, he just didn't think it would come this quick.
So innocuous was the tackle Lulia made on North Queensland centre Kane Linnett in a regular season game last August that the 27-year-old walked off the ground thinking it was nothing more than an awkward tackle.
Three days later he got the chilling news that he had suffered a small vertebrae fracture in his neck and immediately thought he had to fast-track his retirement plans.
"When I first did it, when I first got told that I broke my neck, I thought this could be the end of my career," Lulia told NRL.com.
"I thought about it and I come from a town down in Wollongong, it's a little mining town, and my brother works in the mines. I've got a lot of friends that work in the mines.
"So I was pretty confident I'd be able to get a job down there in the mines. If I was to retire, I'd be back down there. All my family's down there and just working away down there."
But, in a similar experience to Penrith's Sam McKendry and current Gold Coast second-rower Matt Robinson, Lulia was informed by medical stuff that he would be able to resume his career after surgery.
And now the former Bradford and Newcastle centre has resumed limited training, although no timetable has been set to resume any contact work and he is unlikely to be ready for selection for Round 1.
"I haven't fully trained with the team. I need to get out there first and train with the team, but I'll be coming back from a broken neck," he said determinedly.
"That's what I'm hoping, to be ready for Round 1. I want to get out there in the trials and show 'JT' (Tigers coach Jason Taylor) what I can do if my neck's right by then but we'll just have to wait and see.
"I got a bit of ahead of myself because I wasn't feeling [pain] for a while, tried to jump in and do something and got a bit of a wake-up call from one of the front-rowers.
"I said OK, I'll step it down a notch. I'm gradually working my way in there. I think I'll be all right because all my muscles have relaxed. I was very lucky that I didn't have to worry about the nerves."
With Auckland Nines skipper Chris Lawrence and strike weapon Tim Simona likely to feature in the three-quarter line for their season-opener against Gold Coast on March 7, Lulia has vowed to work his way back into competition for a spot in Jason Taylor's 17.
"I haven't been training much with the team. I can do a bit of ball-work but when it comes to contact, I can't really get in there and show them what I can do. So at the moment I don't know where I'm at," said the 27-year-old.
"It is very competitive. Throughout your whole NRL career at clubs, you're competing for spots. I did that at Newcastle, I did that overseas and at the Dragons. It just makes everyone work harder and be the best player you can. It's not a new thing. It makes you want it more."