NRL: Leuluai signing reveals McClennan's intentions in new era

By Steve Deane

Thomas Leuluai. Photo / Getty Images
Thomas Leuluai. Photo / Getty Images

This afternoon in Penrose, Brian McClennan will coach the Warriors for the first time.

The six newcomers to the squad - including major recruit Nathan Friend - will be issued club clobber in the morning before the squad (minus its Kiwis internationals) gathers for a gym session.

In some ways it marks the start of the McClennan era. Whatever transpires on the paddock next season will have begun today.

In reality, McClennan has been at his post for some time, evaluating, plotting and planning. His first major move, the signing of Thomas Leuluai, was formally announced yesterday.

It's a statement of intent and it tells us the coach plans to follow through on making sure the Warriors are one of the toughest sides in the NRL.

Leuluai is one tough little bugger, physically and mentally. His nuggetty physique has enabled him to survive in the land of the giants in the middle of the park and a deep reservoir of self-belief has allowed him to thrive following a harsh initiation to the game.

Burdened with a great name and even greater expectations at the impossibly young age of 17, Leuluai went through the grinder during his first spell as a Warrior, touted as the next Stacey Jones one minute, consigned to the scrap heap the next. Not everyone would have survived the fall. Leuluai did, but it left its mark.

Shortly after he was named man of the match in the 2009 Superleague grand final, I asked him how he regarded a potential return to NRL.

"I dunno, man," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm loving the lifestyle in the cold and rain [in Wigan]. But that is the way the cookie has crumbled for me. I'm dealing with it. It is not something that I dwell on, like 'Man I want to make the NRL'. If I have to play my career [in England], I'll play there."

That answer hinted at an inner conflict. One suspected he dearly wanted to prove a point in the NRL but wasn't about to admit it, perhaps even to himself.

Whatever his motivations, Leuluai will return in 2013 a vastly different player. At Wigan he rotates smoothly between hooker and the halves, while it's hard to recall a Kiwis test in recent years when he wasn't one of the most impressive performers on the park.

The other major thing Leuluai's signing tells us is that the Warriors are still a 'take whatever you can get' club in the player market. Ivan Cleary's last significant move on the player front was to recruit Friend.

McClennan's first move is to recruit another player who is predominantly a hooker. This from a club that already has promising talents Alehana Mara and Pita Godinet in the ranks.

While there's more to it than the notion that you can never have too many hookers, it certainly smacks of taking what's available. Centre is the most glaring hole in McClennan's squad.

The final thing the Leuluai signing tells us is something we already know - the Warriors are far from confident James Maloney will re-sign.

Maloney has rebuffed all attempts to get his signature on a contract extension for the past seven months. Either he is playing an outstanding waiting game or he wants to take his kicking game elsewhere. The smart money is firmly on the latter.

Leuluai is far from a like-for-like replacement for the cocky Aussie but he does add some reliable cover in the halves. The most likely - and exciting - scenario following Maloney's departure would have Shaun Johnson switching to five-eighth, Godinet at halfback and Friend, Leuluai and Mara platooning at hooker.

Whatever the case, the signing means the club have options. The sense of desperation around retaining Maloney will have eased. If Maloney was playing a waiting game, he may have waited too long.

- NZ Herald

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