Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Homeward bound Kiwi certain he can adapt

Thomas Leuluai has forged a strong reputation. Photo / Getty Images
Thomas Leuluai has forged a strong reputation. Photo / Getty Images

As the Warriors reassemble next week, Thomas Leuluai will be more nervous than most.

Leuluai admits he is a little apprehensive about meeting new coach Matthew Elliott, on top of his return to the NRL for the first time since 2004.

The Wigan star was Brian McClennan's first acquisition as Warriors coach but, with McClennan gone, the half-cum-hooker has a new man to impress.

"It's weird in a way," Leuluai told the Herald on Sunday. "You are signed by someone and he is gone. It has happened [in England] before but it does make things uncertain. You wonder - 'what's his opinion of you, what does he see in you?'.

"But I can't wait to show what I can do and I hope the feeling is mutual."

It shouldn't take long for Elliott to be impressed. Leuluai seems to be just what the Warriors need; he is defensively tough, experienced, has a strong kicking game and scored 60 tries in 168 games in England.

He is used to playing a structured game, especially under Michael Maguire (the former Wigan coach now in charge at Souths). He might not be as quick as James Maloney but also won't miss as many tackles.

There will be sceptics but it is no coincidence Leuluai was in the starting 13 the last two times the Kiwis beat the Kangaroos and he is the most capped Kiwi among current players.

Leuluai made his debut (as the youngest ever Warrior) at the age of 18 in 2003. They were very different times. Daniel Anderson was the coach and celebrity boxing trainer Monty Betham the captain. Benji Marshall and Sonny Bill Williams were unknown youngsters while the only Warriors survivor from that time is Jerome Ropati. Leuluai left at the end of the 2004 season.

"In terms of me then and now it is worlds apart," says Leuluai. "I was only a baby back then. I can understand where people are coming from wondering about me. I know coming back to the NRL will be a massive challenge but that is why I am here. Anyway, there is pressure in everything that you do; I will need to adapt fast and am confident that I can."

Used both at hooker and in the halves at Wigan, Leuluai is expected to wear the number six jersey at the Warriors and is looking forward to building a partnership with Shaun Johnson.

"He is very talented and I'm confident I can help him develop his game," says Leuluai. "I think he has only scratched the surface of what he is capable of."

Leuluai leaves for New Zealand today, and admits it is a strange feeling:"I'm coming home but it also feels like I am leaving home in a way.

"It wasn't an easy decision to make but it was about being closer to family and taking the next challenge in my career."

He has been a popular player at Central Park where fans have admired his durability, toughness and skill. His favourite memory is the 2011 Challenge Cup final, where he scored the match-sealing try with three minutes on the clock.

"It was Wigan's first time in 11 years and it was a hard road to get there," remembers Leuluai. "The week and the match was incredible and even guys like Ryan Hoffman and Jeff Lima [who had won NRL grand finals] were blown away."

He says he is fully recovered from the ankle injury which blighted his final Super League campaign and is anticipating a tough next few weeks.

"I'm guessing it will be a hard pre-season from all reports but it needs to be," says Leuluai. "You have to be fit to play this game - there is no issue there."

- Herald on Sunday

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