Like a gravel-voiced old crooner on his farewell tour, Darren Lockyer has stepped up to the microphone for positively the last time. Rugby league's answer to Tom Waits – his rasping vocal register is the result of an elbow to the windpipe early in his career – is getting used to saying his goodbyes.
There has been his last club game for the Brisbane Broncos, his last State of Origin, his last Test on Australian soil and, on Saturday night at Elland Road, his record 59th cap in his last game of all. "I've had a lot of last games," he says with the air of a man with just one more landmark to negotiate. "I've tried to keep the emotion out of it, so it's not about my last game and I can focus on the footy." All the same, there is something special about ending one of the great international playing careers almost where it began. In 1997, he had just one cap to his credit when he toured England and played at Elland Road for the first time.
It still ranks among his favourite memories. "I was just a kid of 20 and it was like Christmas for me. I was playing alongside blokes like Laurie Daley and Bradley Clyde, who had been my heroes when I was growing up."
Then a precocious young full-back, he shone in an Ashes series-clinching victory. It was the start of a fruitful relationship with Leeds United's stadium. "It's a nice place to finish," he said as he surveyed the scene again. "I've got some good memories of it." Those memories include putting Great Britain to the sword, beating them 44-4 in the final of what was then the Tri-Nations in 2004. It was a match in which Lockyer, by then stand-off and captain, had a hand or foot in all but one of Australia's tries.
Lockyer was also instrumental in Australia beating England in the Four Nations final on his last visit two years ago. One way and another, a happy hunting ground and a good choice of exit point.
He has no need to be leaving the game now. A niggling shoulder injury aside, he looks as spry as ever at 34 and Widnes were keen to sign him as the man to inspire their re-entry into Super League. Lockyer considered their handsome offer seriously. "But I don't like wasting people's time, so I didn't go too far down that path," he says.
Nor is he in any hurry to step into the coaching role that is widely supposed to be his destiny. "Not now," he says. "Potentially never." Instead, he plans to approach the game as an observer for the next couple of years, although he is likely to be working in some capacity on the 2013 World Cup.
First, though, there is the small matter of a career-ending Four Nations final to navigate. Much as he tries to play it down, there is something undeniably special about the occasion.
For the first time in England, his mother and father – the heroes of hundreds of long drives to games from the family home in the Queensland outback town of Roma – will be there to see him play. His wife can't be, because she is expecting their second child.
Already, bookies are taking bets on Lockyer scoring the winning points, just as he has against British sides on so many occasions. He has been Australia's get-out-of-jail card and his coach, Tim Sheens, admits that he will be badly missed. "He'll leave a big hole in the Australian side," Sheens says. "Champions don't come along every day – and I don't use that word lightly."
Adrian Morley, an opponent for club and country, who once went on holiday with him to Amsterdam after an Ashes series, described him as "modest and humble". That is certainly the way he sounds as he rumbles his way through his reflections on his career. "I have to pinch myself and ask myself how I've done what I have. I've never taken it for granted."Reuse content