SYDNEY - League fans can lick their lips in anticipation after Wallabies discard Lote Tuqiri came through his farewell to the 15-man code unscathed and began preparations for his dramatic return to the NRL.
Tuqiri played strongly in English side Leicester's 35-19 win over London Irish yesterday but, more importantly for the Wests Tigers, appeared to finish his seven-year stint in rugby injury-free.
Sacked by the Australian Rugby Union last year after a controversial 67-test Wallabies career, Tuqiri is now almost certain to be named by Tigers coach Tim Sheens for the NRL club's premiership opener against Manly on Monday week. "Chances are I'll name him on Tuesday and then we'll work back from there," Sheens said yesterday.
Tuqiri is expected home midweek and Sheens said he would be checked by club doctors before a likely first training run with the Tigers on Friday.
The former Brisbane superstar's return will be a huge shot in the arm for the NRL and the Tigers' marketing machine, but Sheens is wary of the expectations on the 30-year-old.
"We've got a three-year contract and we expect him to work back into his rugby league rather than jump straight in.
If he scored early and did well, it's still a long way before he settles back down into our game, it's been seven years or more.
"At the end of the day he's still got to settle down and get over that hype that will be around him arriving, let alone getting into the game and playing. I don't care who you are, those things can sidetrack you very easily and I'm not expecting and nor am I asking people to expect the world from him."
Asked if he was relieved Tuqiri had come through his last game of rugby union uninjured, the coach said: "I'm more relieved that he's on his way back and we can get on with sorting out our season."
English media lauded Tuqiri for his contribution to rugby union.
"He was banished from Australian rugby union for unspecified naughtiness, his time at Leicester is up and he now returns to rugby league as one of two players from that code out of about 90 who managed to step up to union as proper world class performers," the Times' Stephen Jones wrote.
Tuqiri told media in Britain he would miss the English Premiership. "My wife and I are both quite sad and it will be tough to leave," the Leicester Mercury reported him as saying.
"The fact that I was going back home clinched it but Leicester made it very hard. It has been really cold and the experience with driving a car in this weather and clearing the snow and ice off the windows is something that will stay with me.
"I was only here for a short time and I enjoyed the novelty of it. If I was here for a year or two, I suppose I would quickly get sick of it.
"When I get home, I will get off the plane and go to the beach pretty quickly. Despite the weather, I have enjoyed playing here a lot more than I thought I would."