Chris Lawrence’s 2019 season started earlier than expected.
The man they call ‘Rowdy’ came back on Friday night against Canberra, after a horrific preseason accident in Auckland that left his face looking like he was a punching bag for Andy Ruiz Jr taking turns with the bouncer at the old Bourbon and Beefsteak in Kings Cross.
At 30 years of age, with 11 fractures that dramatically changed the look of his face, and having suffered a potentially career-ending injury previously, Rowdy would have been more than entitled to call time on a distinguished career.
Wests Tigers fans would have understood his decision and wished him good luck for the future.
That’s not how the likeable and quietly spoken backrower goes about things though. Back in 2011 he came back from another cruel injury, a dislocated hip, after more than three months on the sideline.
Lawrence lost the speed that saw him race up the sideline and score for the club on debut in 2006, as a 17-year-old schoolboy at Suncorp Stadium, in the Tigers’ upset victory over the Brisbane Broncos.
It was the same speed that helped Lawrence be selected to play for Australia in 2010-11 and State of Origin for New South Wales in 2010.
After the hip injury, Rowdy needed to reinvent himself or risk forced retirement. He transformed into a quality backrower operating, on the left edge with Luke Brooks.
However he returned to his old centre position last Friday against the Raiders, after Mahe Fonua was forced off inside 12 minutes for a HIA.
Leading into the game, coach Michael Maguire played up the importance of Lawrence’s inclusion to a team that could only be described as being in a slump.
“I can’t wait to see him run back out there in the jersey,” Maguire said.
“I think it’s an incredible story to have seen him in the position he was way back in the pre-season to where he is now. It’s an incredible achievement just to play, and I know that he wants to get back out there with the teammates that he loves.
“He’s a big part of what we’re doing here and I can’t wait to see him out on the field.”
It was not just the coach gushing, as a number of players commented on the inspiration Lawrence provides.
Forward Josh Aloiai said, “He’s definitely one of those players I really look up to. With everything that he’s overcome, it’s pretty amazing and inspirational. He deserves a lot more credit than what people know.”
His performance in the Raiders game wasn’t the best of his career. He played in a side that was outclassed, out-enthused and didn’t trouble the scoreboard attendant. As the coach lamented they “lacked urgency”.
Lawrence put together 61 metres from seven runs and made 28 tackles. He also managed a couple of crucial handling errors.
“It’s great to be back, pretty disappointed with the score and my own performance, but I’m grateful to be back playing footy,” Lawrence said after the game.
A short and honest appraisal of where things are at from a man that has not been involved in any controversy during his fourteen-year career.
Lawrence’s proud sister Emma, who works in the media, came out on Twitter to praise his mental strength and declare that he is “an inspiration”.
So proud of @chrislawrence04 ????????
I doubt many would have the mental strength to return from such a horrific injury.
You’re an inspiration ???? @WestsTigers pic.twitter.com/NOaQy22MVC
— Emma Lawrence (@emmalawrence90) June 8, 2019
The surgery to repair his face included the insertion of seven plates. One wag on social media said the surgery had left Chris looking younger.
Maguire said in the press conference that it was good to see Lawrence out there but that he had “a bit of a tough night”.
The coach has been shopping players around to other clubs in an attempt to buy talent and improve the squad that he largely inherited from the previous coach Ivan Cleary.
There are a number of players on long and healthy contracts who are either not performing or, in the case of Josh Reynolds, have played few games due to injury.
Lawrence, who is the club’s leading try-scorer, with 83 from 228 games, is off contract at the end of this season. He has 12 rounds to show the coach that he is worth persevering with in 2020.
Surely if he has the misfortune to incur another serious injury it will be time to pull the pin and focus on his post-footy career. While the money is enticing, his physical health becomes a large consideration. He will undergo more surgery on his face in the near future.
But if Rowdy doesn’t continue playing beyond 2019 it won’t be due to a lack of courage, passion and a commitment to the only senior club he has ever known after coming up through the junior representative ranks at Western Suburbs.