New direction ... Souths coach Michael Maguire has helped iron out Issac Luke's disciplinary weakness to create an influential player, Mario Fenech says. Photo: Brendan Esposito
SOUTH SYDNEY great Mario Fenech says Issac Luke has learnt the lesson he needed to learn if he is to become a great Rabbitohs player.
Fenech, the former Rabbitohs hooker and captain from a generation ago, last night predicted Luke's performance would have a huge bearing on whether Souths get past Canterbury in tonight's grand final qualifier at ANZ Stadium.
Souths coach Michael Maguire dropped Luke in round 25 of the regular season because of disciplinary issues on and off the field. Luke played for Souths' feeder club, North Sydney, in the NSW Cup.
On the same weekend, the Rabbitohs - minus Luke - rebounded from a two-game losing streak by belting Parramatta 38-6.
But the coach reinstated Luke in the first-grade squad the following week, and he responded by being a key man in the run to the second-last week of the season by the most famous club in the league. Luke was a star in last weekend's semi-final win over Canberra.
''Since Michael got here, he's been a great mentor for Issac, and Issac is a great bloke and great player,'' Fenech said. ''I love him. If he's not one of the great players in the game I don't know who is.
''He's a good character, and we all learn lessons in life. I know when I played at Souths I got sent off a few times, and then I thought, 'Well, hang on a minute, I've got to realise I've got to make a contribution to my team', and Issac's a bit like that at the moment.
''Michael was just trying to make him understand what he has to contribute to us, and the fact is he's a great talent. If he plays well on Saturday night we'll be in the contest. Michael's big on discipline, and to be honest you need discipline.
''It was a discipline thing with Issac. Nothing too bad, but you've got to learn. It was a lesson he had to learn, no doubt about it. He's one of the most talented dummy halves in the competition, but he now understands and appreciates what his role is in the football team.
''He doesn't say too much, but he's always smiling, and he's very popular with the boys. We all need direction. We all need a bit of mentoring, and thankfully Michael's been a great mentor to Issac.
''We're learning all the time - you never stop learning in rugby league. Issac has come to realise he can play even better football with discipline. This will give his career longevity, and I believe he'll go straight down the line from here.
''I really love that Michael has taught Issac a lesson, in that he kept him out for a little while, then brought him back in. I know Issac was so proud to be involved last week. He had a great game, and he's going to be driven to have a big game this week.''
Fenech is adamant that, for Souths to win, they will have to take chances at some stage. ''I don't think we can just try to hang in there,'' he said. ''We really need to chance our arm. We've got to have the discipline, but if we're going to play conservative for 80 minutes there's no way in the world we'll get them.
''It was a great lesson for us against Melbourne in the first week of the finals. We had a bit of stage fright and they towelled us up, but it was a good lesson for us. Then, at the back end of the Canberra game, we put a few points on them.
''The Bulldogs are very well coached, but I think we can come up with the right plan. Our best signing has been our coach as well.
''There's no doubt we'll be in the arm wrestle with them, and with 10 minutes to go - if you're still in the arm wrestle with them - anything can happen.''