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Legend Q&A: Luke Williamson

Tai chi with an advertising cult hero.

Training on his own in the middle of a contract stoush.

Surviving off $300 a week on the expansion frontline. And a lazy 260 games at the top level across every position in the game.

From Super League's formative years to the start of Manly's golden run, Luke Williamson lived one hell of a rugby league life.

Still probably best known for his off-field exploits as the NRL's very own Barry "The Cougar" Dawson during the mid-2000s, Williamson's cult status made him a fan favourite.

His work ethic, versatility and infectious attitude made him even more popular with his teammates.

Williamson talks through his decade at the top, reliving a career with more twists and turns than most.

Legend Q and A: Luke Williamson

Your dad Henry played for Queensland and your uncle Lionel represented the Maroons and Australia during the 1960s and 70s. Was rugby league an inevitable path for you?

"Not at all. I played soccer for five years when I was younger and didn't start playing rugby league until I was 11. It wasn't really pushed at all on me, it was the opposite. I went to a rugby union school during high school, I'd end up playing two games a weekend.

"I was quite a small kid, I didn't grow until I was 16. I played in the centres and then played hooker for five years or so until I grew and I ended up out wide again by the time I went to Adelaide after high school."

Luke Williamson playing in 2003.
Luke Williamson playing in 2003. ©NRL Photos

How did your first contract come about?

"I was on a scholarship with South Queensland and they offered me a contract right in the middle of Super League War.

"The Crushers offered me a contract worth exactly the same amount - $10,000 for the year - as Super League did when I was in South Queensland's under 17s.

"Dad just said, 'go to Adelaide', I left home as soon as I finished high school and a couple of months later I was down there by myself not knowing anyone. It was certainly a life lesson living off $300 a week in a city I'd never really even considered.

"I went down after school in late '95 and in '96 Super League was brushed in the courts. I came back to Brisbane and played there for six months, but I was still signed and went back down when it was back up and ready to go.

"I ended up debuting early in 1997 against the Auckland Warriors, which was pretty overwhelming. I was marking up on Tea Ropati, a 30 [or] 31-year-old Kiwi international in a team that was basically the NZ international side in those days."

There was one good thing that came out of it, I met my wife down there

Luke Williamson on his time in Canberra

Williamson signed with Canberra midway through 1998, a shrewd move given the Rams held their 1999 season launch only to be wound up as a club days afterwards.

Still only 21, Williamson enjoyed a successful first season in lime green, but by 2002 he was on the outer after signing a one-year extension.

Told he was welcome to leave, Williamson stood his ground and ended up training away from teammates at a local gym to fulfil the obligations of his Canberra contract while a release was eventually negotiated.

How do you look back on your time at Canberra?

"There was one good thing that came out of it, I met my wife down there. I look on the playing side of it fondly, I played with some absolute greats and I've got friends for life from Canberra.

"I thought I was in the right as far as my contract situation was concerned. By the end of 2001, I was on contract and been extended but it was clear it was time to move on.

Luke Williamson playing for Canberra against the Magpies.
Luke Williamson playing for Canberra against the Magpies. ©NRL Photos

"I trained on my own for a bit but it didn't last long because it got exposure and looking back, I was 22 years old and Peter Sharp gave me an opportunity out of it at the Northern Eagles.

"He saw through the saga and we were both honest with each other and he was willing to give me a go. From the word go we were on the same page and it worked out great, seven good years with Manly."

The good years came with a great mane of hair and in turn the Barry Dawson moniker, a nod to the Cougar Bourbon ads of the mid-2000s that Williamson was only too happy to fuel.

Where did the mullet and Barry Dawson persona come from?

"There's a photo of Dessie [Hasler] in the Leagues Club with Cliffy [Lyons] and someone else when they were modelling with Tina Turner in the early 90s, and Dessie's got a mane of hair that comes down to his backside. I thought well, you know what, I'm going to grow it too.

"I loved it, how big all that got, because the fact is I was just taking the piss and having fun.

Luke Williamson as Barry Dawson.
Luke Williamson as Barry Dawson. ©NRL Photos

"I've got playing cards with my hair as long as it can be and it was hilarious. I think it popped up at training once the Cougar Bourbon ads were on TV, I'd muck around and pull out 'The Art of Speediness' for a laugh.

"It took off a bit and got a bit of a following, and I ended up doing a couple of events with the original Barry Dawson in Sydney.

"The bloke's name is actually Max Austin, he had a martial arts practice in Hornsby that I went along to and trained with him. It was phenomenal. I was doing tai chi with him, I loved it.

"I turned 30 in my last year at the club, I threw a big fancy dress party and Max came along and it was all-time."

Big names Jamie Lyon, Matt Orford, Anthony Watmough and the Stewart brothers deservedly claimed plenty of the plaudits during Manly's first rise under Hasler.

Right there with them though as a crucial cog in the Sea Eagles pack was Williamson, locking the scrum in the 2007 loss to Melbourne.

Luke Williamson and the "real Cougar" Max Austin.
Luke Williamson and the "real Cougar" Max Austin. ©Supplied

But while club icon Steve Menzies enjoyed a fairytale finish to his Manly career the following year in the 40-0 grand final return of serve, injuries kept Williamson in the stands for what was also his last season in the Northern Beaches.

What was it like sitting out the '08 grand final having been a part of the previous year's heavy loss to the Storm?

"I'd watch grand finals and see the poor buggers walking around [on a victory lap] that hadn't played the game and I'd think 'how hard would that be?' Then it was me. It was hard, no doubt.

"I still feel a part of it though. I played 20-odd games that year, and I'd fractured my eye-socket against Newcastle. In my recovery, I twinged my hamstring and came back probably too early and it went again.

"Getting on the paddock in the GF didn't happen, it happened for a reason but that game, you couldn't have scripted it any better.

"If there's one medal I did win though, I was best on ground in post-match celebrations. And I'll take that one with a bit of pride."

Luke Williamson and Brett Stewart in 2007.
Luke Williamson and Brett Stewart in 2007. ©NRL Photos

Williamson shifted to Super League outfit Harlequins in 2009, playing two seasons under Brian McDermott before returning to Australia to take up welfare and development coaching roles on Hasler's staff at Manly.

He is still involved in the game as an NRL pathways program coordinator on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

The mane and moustache are gone, but "The Cougar's" career is still remembered fondly.

Any other highlights from your time in the game?

"Obviously along with playing grand finals and finals footy in that great Manly team, I think I played every position along the way.

"I've ended up at front row and never officially wore the No.1 jumper, but I played fullback a couple of times at Adelaide.

I'd muck around and pull out 'The Art of Speediness' for a laugh

Luke Williamson on his alter ego Barry Dawson

"I remember playing halfback in reserve grade for Canberra up at Townsville, and as I'm running a few of the first graders are getting into me. 'Holy shit, look at the size of that halfback, where'd they find him!?'

"I kicked a few field goals early on in Canberra too. I really enjoyed goal kicking in my time too.

"The fact I'm still in the game too, I really enjoy this role. The development and education aspect of the game, passing on lessons learned over my career.

"I was sacked by a club, that's part of history, it does happen to players and happens in any job or walk of life, and I did see a fair bit in my career. So being able to educate younger guys on that is an element I enjoy."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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