Soni Luke’s smile says it all.
After four season-ending injuries that threatened to end his career prematurely, the latest Panthers prodigy finally made his long-awaited NRL debut after more than a decade in the system.
At 26, Luke’s journey to a first grade debut at Penrith has been anything but smooth sailing.
Soni, pronounced just like the brand type you’d get purchasing a product at Harvey Norman, was another of the club’s teenage stars who came into the Penrith system as a 12-year-old in 2008.
He made his way through the grades, starring alongside James Fisher-Harris and Dylan Edwards while he also partnered Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary at stages in the under 20s.
He was player of the match in the NYC grand final back in 2015 before everything began to go downhill.
“I had three shoulder recos [in three seasons], back-to-back-to-back, same shoulder, the right shoulder,” Luke said.
“I went away and joined the Tigers for a season and had a really good year, then I came back to Penrith and tore my left pectoral [muscle] so it was a pretty dark time.
“I questioned myself a lot during the process and missing out on teams and a lot of injuries.
“That’s probably the hardest part, just watching all your mates debut. You kind of wish and hope as well but injury after injury kept stalling.
“You do question it but I’m pretty thankful I hung in there and got out there.”
Luke, a St Marys junior who grew up in the Mt Druitt suburb of Whalan, had two silver linings when he was at his lowest – the birth of his two daughters Keani and Milani.
“I had my first one when I did my first shoulder injury and then had my second daughter when I did my pec so really grateful I had them,” he said.
Which brings us back to Sunday afternoon, with his daughters and family by his side, Luke ran onto Penrith’s BlueBet Stadium as the 607th player to represent the club.
After receiving the shock of his life by Ivan Cleary only days earlier, Luke’s hard work and resilience had finally paid off.
“Ivan announced there was going to be a debut and I thought nothing of it because I knew Api and Mitch [Kenny] were sweet,” Luke said.
“He ended up saying my name and emotions came on straight away. Lucky all the boys got around me coz otherwise I would’ve been a wreck by myself.
“The boys went absolutely crazy, it was probably the coolest moment of the week and then obviously telling family and friends.
“That’s the good thing about the club, the depth, I was one of the lucky ones who got a go tonight but there’s plenty of others waiting for a go.”
Cleary’s decision to play Luke paid immediate dividends with the bench hooker sending Isaah Yeo over within two minutes of being on the field.
Yeo darts through for a try
The club’s investment in Luke is also clear after he signed a new two-year deal in March after impressing on a train and trial contract.
It ensures he and Mitch Kenny will be the two key men to drive the side at hooker when Api Koroisau departs for the Wests Tigers in 2023.
“Mitch has done his trade for the last few years so me and him will hopefully slot into Api’s role next year,” he said.
“We’ve still got 12 months so hopefully we can build and keep learning off Api while he’s here.”