As part of an NRL.com series on players aiming for a bounce-back season, Dominic Brock analyses what went wrong for a one-time Dally M Halfback of the Year.
A highly rated youngster touted as a future NSW halfback and the Wests Tigers' player of the year in 2018 and 2019, Luke Brooks had a year to forget in 2020.
Two seasons after winning the Dally M Halfback of the Year award and just months after being named in a 34-man extended NSW Blues squad, Brooks had arguably a career-worst campaign, which included being dropped to the bench for three matches.
He finished the year with just three try assists – easily the lowest return since his first full season when he made 12 on the way to the NRL's Rookie of the Year award.
In that time his previous lowest number of try assists in a season was nine, in 2017, and he made a career-best 16 in 2019.
His short kicking game wasn't particularly effective either. After a career-best 22 forced drop-outs in 2018 and 15 in 2019, Brooks only had six last season – his worst result in six years.
So can he turn it around this year?
The main man again
Even though Brooks is heading into his eighth full season in first grade, he was an early starter, debuting at the age of 18 in late 2013 with a terrific performance in which he scored a try and set up two others.
Brooks: I will be running the team
He's still only 26, a couple of years shy of Roosters star Luke Keary and five years younger than Kangaroos halfback Daly Cherry-Evans. While he may not be on the level of that duo – or 26-year-old Queensland star Cameron Munster or 23-year-old NSW halfback Nathan Cleary – he's by no means a spent force.
He beat all four of those players in Dally M voting in 2018, ranking third overall and just three points behind winner Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
And if Brooks needs a reminder that playmakers can bounce back later in their careers, he need look no further than his 2020 halves partner.
Benji Marshall, at 35, was in great touch for the Tigers last season with 17 try assists, after contributing just five a couple of years earlier in Brooks's Dally M year.
Not only did Benji's performances show the way forward for Brooks, but his absence this year after moving to the Rabbitohs means he is once again the team's undisputed chief playmaker.
It's clear Brooks was simply less involved last year than he had been in previous seasons. He averaged 46 touches per game, down from 56 a year earlier. His number of kicks per game declined from 11 to less than eight, and his offload count dropped from 30 in 2019 to just nine last season.
All of those numbers can improve if Brooks embraces the role of the team's primary playmaker, alongside a ball-running five-eighth like Adam Doueihi or Moses Mbye.
Case for the defence
The real low point of Brooks's 2020 season came in round 10, when he was dropped to the bench for the first what would be a three-week stretch as an interchange player.
It was the first time he'd ever started on the bench in an NRL game, and followed a match in when he produced six missed tackles in a loss to Souths – two of which led to line breaks and one which led directly to a try.
In three games off the bench and for the rest of the season – when he returned to the starting side at five-eighth and then his usual halfback spot – Brooks didn't make six missed tackles in a game again.
In one sense, his brief demotion to the bench did the trick.
The Wests Tigers' 2020 season in review
But while his defensive errors decreased, so did just about everything else. Brooks's line breaks, tackle breaks, offloads, tackles, run metres and kick metres all declined in the second half of the season – even when he was back in the 80-minute role.
That coincided with Marshall being used as the team's dominant playmaker, a role Brooks will need to reclaim this season. At the very least Brooks will be the go-to player when directing the team around the park and kicking in general play.
If he can get his groove back in attack without becoming a liability in defence, there's no reason why he can't regain the kind of form that earned him the halfback of the year award a few seasons back.
Wests Tigers in 2021
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