As a Luke Keary fan I’m less concerned about the colour of jersey than his long-term health given his history of head knocks, his pocket-sized frame and the uncompromising way he plays.
He has flourished since joining the Roosters from South Sydney, with whom he won a premiership in 2014, but former Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire instilled in him something invaluable: toughness.
“Luke doesn’t manage the way he goes into contact, he doesn’t let his size influence the way he plays,” Roosters coach Trent Robinson says. “He runs into holes, he takes on the line. He has ‘Madge’ to thank for that.”
In other words, Keary doesn’t hide. Which also makes him perfect for the scorching furnace of Origin, does it not?
The problem with that is the series of concussions that robbed him of his debut last year when he suffered a head knock — his fifth in 18 months — while playing against the Knights just days before selection.
This season, broken ribs troubled him more than his brain as the Roosters fell just short of a third consecutive premiership.
“All I wanted to do was lay down for a couple of weeks when the season was over,” Keary says of the toll on his body and mind.
Some within the Blues set-up wondered if Souths five-eighth Cody Walker might have been a better option given his form and freshness.
“The way Cody was playing, you couldn’t look away,” Fittler says. “But I never worried about Luke’s concussions because I trust the Roosters medical staff, some of whom are also on our Blues staff.”
This is the part of the interview when things get tense. The Roosters are tired of hearing they have been negligent in handling concussions suffered by Keary, Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend.
Keary himself bristles at the suggestion.
His concussion history has been discussed at length at board level while others at the club tell you he’s researched his own condition like he’s studying the opposition in grand final week.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of different people about my situation — because I’ve had to,” he says firmly. “I feel like I have a fair bit of knowledge about it. I know what’s going on. I know the people who are talking to me and looking after me and giving me advice. They’re all smart people in their field and I trust their opinion. They wouldn’t let me play if I was putting myself at risk.
“They’re all I’ve got. I’ve talked to these people over many years now. I can’t go with my own opinion. The club and coach don’t really have a say in it anyway. It’s the NRL that makes the call. Which is a good thing.”
Keary is also no fool. Sadly, it’s not hard to find a punch-drunk former player and he knows that’s not the life he wants for him and his young family.
“The experts I’m talking about have told me that if they think it’s affecting me, that’s the day I will have to seriously think about my future,” he says. “Because it would be a shit way to live.”
Origin has come late for Keary: he makes his debut at the age of 28. That makes him the 15th-oldest NSW player — and the 30th overall — to make his debut out of 489 players since 1980.
For a player who has received the rare feat of winning three premierships at two clubs, won the Clive Churchill Medal and played for his country, it’s overdue.
Fittler in his first series as coach opted for James Maloney as five-eighth of the 2018 series, but still went out of his way to phone Keary to explain.
That’s telling respect for a player who hadn’t played Origin before.
“He is always in winning teams,” Fittler says. “After a while, you realise it’s not a coincidence. Very cool character.”
Keary brings a calmness to every team for which he plays. It would surprise if he blinked beneath the bright lights of Adelaide Oval.
“It’s all well and good to play in these jerseys but it’s what you do in them that defines you,” Keary says.
He’s flagged a different role for NSW to the one assumed at the Roosters this year. In the face of a crippling injury toll, and alongside halfback Kyle Flanagan, he became the dominant force out of necessity.
It was interesting to hear him say he’ll take a back seat to Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary in Origin I.
“That’s Luke,” Robinson says. “He’s telling Nathan to play a traditional halfback’s game. To go out and own it.”
And who knows? Together they can make their own Origin moments to inspire a whole generation of young kids throughout NSW and maybe beyond.
Does anything stand out for Keary from those Wednesday nights huddled around the TV in Ipswich, behind enemy lines and deep in Maroons territory while watching Origins of the past?
“Maybe Fletch’s hand grenade,” he laughs, referring to the infamous post-try celebration from NSW backrower Bryan Fletcher which still irritates Queenslanders.
Forget the eligibility rules. That sounds like a Blues player to me.
Sports news, results and expert commentary delivered straight to your inbox each weekday. Sign up here.
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.