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How Soni Luke took the long way from junior stardom to an NRL berth

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Twelve months ago, Soni Luke was playing in front of half a dozen people at park footy grounds in Sydney suburbs you don’t hear much about, and the NRL dream he’d been chasing all his life couldn’t have felt further away.

Life in the Ron Massey Cup, rugby league’s third tier competition, is far from glamorous. It’s tough, hard footy, with a few former first graders thrown in the mix but precious few future debutants.

Luke was running around for his junior club, St Mary’s, against teams like Mounties and Hills and Wentworthville, and given his 26th birthday was on the horizon he would have been forgiven for thinking this was to be his lot in the rugby league life.

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“If someone had told me what would happen next, I’d have told them they were crazy,” Luke said.

Luke is that classic rugby league story of an overnight success that’s years in the making. He became Penrith Panther number 607 when he ran out against Canberra on Sunday, and given he’s been named again for this week’s clash against the Titans he’s got another chance to make up for lost time.

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Luke came through the grades with the likes of Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and Dylan Edwards, and he was once tipped for as many first grade glories as any of them.

Maybe more than most of them, in fact, given he captained the Panthers to an Under 20s premiership in 2015 and won man of the match in the grand final win over a Manly side which contained Tom Trbojevic, Liam Knight and Nicho Hynes.

But Luke just never seemed to get an even break. He always did well in reserve grade, and whenever he did go down to Ron Massey Cup he was close to the best player in the competition, but the cards never fell his way.

“Of course there were times I thought like giving up. I had three back-to-back shoulder reconstructions on the same side, had a year at Wests, came back to Penrith and did my pec on the other side,” Luke said.

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“That was probably the first time I thought about giving up the dream. But lucky I didn’t, cause I got my debut.”

That elusive first start finally came at the ripe old age of 26 in last week’s win over Canberra, where Luke set up a try for Isaah Yeo with one of his first touches and looked every bit the player who was tipped for stardom all those years ago.

It had been many years since he played with Cleary and Luai and all the rest of his mates who have become the most famous names in the game, but reuniting with them on the biggest stage made his maiden voyage in first grade all the sweeter.

“It was awesome, it’s a dream come true to play at a packed out (stadium). All the boys got around me as well, that was probably the best part of running on,” Luke said.

“Guys like Nath, Romey, Dylan Edwards, Fish, we’re all around the same age and we played all our juniors together but we haven’t got the chance to play with each other for five or six years.

“We had a chat about it during the week, just how long it’s been. The boys were just as stoked as I was, that was a really cool part of it.

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