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

League: Warriors legend Ali Lauitiiti set for remarkable Mt Smart return

Sometime this season Ali Lauitiiti could be running onto Mt Smart Stadium for an NRL game.

He might play one match, maybe five, maybe more, but the fact that it is even on the cards is quite extraordinary.

The 36-year-old, who will be the oldest player in the competition, is the ultimate prodigal son, returning to his hometown club 15 years after he first lit up the competition.

"It's a bit unreal, unbelievable, really," says Lauitiiti. "If I stop and think about it, it's hard to take in but I'm just grateful for the opportunity and want to contribute to this club."

The possibility of Lauitiiti's return was first raised by the Herald on Sunday last October, during an interview before the Kiwis clash with Leeds.

"If the Warriors need any players, I'll be willing to put my hand up...

we'll see how it goes," was Lauitiiti's response at the time. He was just a free agent looking for a team.

With the club's interest apparently piqued, Lauitiiti sent a "casual" text message to former Kiwis team-mate Ruben Wiki a week later.

"I asked if the club needed any old players, any old heads," he explains. "Ruben wrote back and said 'Are you serious?' I confirmed I was."

Recruitment manager Tony Iro got involved before coach Andrew McFadden and managing director Jim Doyle green-lighted the deal.

He's outside the club's top 25 players but that doesn't seem to matter. He's back.

When you meet Lauitiiti, it feels like not much has changed.

Sure, there are a few grey flecks in the hair but there's still the same ready smile, humble demeanour, tree-trunk legs and hands like dinner plates. And maybe, just maybe, we'll see a few touches of magic again.

More than 140 players have passed through the doors since Lauitiiti was last at the club, but few of them, perhaps just a handful, are remembered with such reverence as Alaimatagi Lauitiiti.

He was the club's second great home-grown superstar, after Stacey Jones, and like the Little General had unique talents that captured headlines on both sides of the Tasman.

Ali Lauitiiti in action for the Warriors against the Dragons back in 2001. Photo/Getty.
Ali Lauitiiti in action for the Warriors against the Dragons back in 2001. Photo/Getty.

He created a viral buzz - in the age before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. No one had seen such a big man so light on his feet and his prodigious off-loading made him the Sonny Bill Williams of his time.

"Sometimes you would sit back and just go, 'wow'," remembers Jones of playing alongside Lauitiiti in the early 2000s.

"He could do just about anything and, for a big guy, had a skill level far superior than anyone else in terms of his footwork and ball-handling skills. If you needed something in a game, you would always look to Ali."

Lauitiiti had been spotted in an open trial by John Ackland and he made his first-grade debut in 1998 at North Sydney Oval.

"I'll never forget that," says Lauitiiti, "going out onto the field and seeing Jason Taylor, Greg Florimo, Gary Larsson, Billy Moore... guys I had just seen on TV."

Lauitiiti came into his own between 2001 and 2003 under coach Daniel Anderson.

At times he was unstoppable and the excitement when the 1.88m second-rower got the ball in his hands was palpable.

He was a key man in the historic run to the playoffs in 2001, then the grand final in 2002, and was christened the 'Michael Jordan of league'.

"We had a great team and everything clicked," says Lauitiiti. "It was an amazing time, something you don't forget in a hurry."

The Warriors reached the preliminary final in 2003, before the wheels fell off at the start of the next season.

After the team dropped five of their first six games, Lauitiiti was sacked by then chief executive Mick Watson after a bizarre one-on-one meeting.

Watson later said Lauitiiti "didn't care enough".

"It was a decision that was rushed and he was made a scapegoat in a team that wasn't performing," Jones says. "It was typical of Ali that he went quietly. He could have kicked up a fuss."

Lauitiiti isn't into regrets.

"It was hard at the time and sometimes you wonder," he says. "But it was also a blessing in disguise. It was a good decision, made me grow up."

Lauitiiti had a long, successful career in England, with five Super League titles at Leeds during the glory years of the competition, and is the proud father of four daughters (11, nine, seven and one).

His initial progress at the Warriors this year has been slowed by two hamstring strains but he is likely to be available for round two of the NSW Cup. He's realistic about his first-grade prospects this year but it's not out of the question, especially if there are a few injuries or players missing through representative duties.

"I want to earn my stripes," Lauitiiti says. "It would be great to play some footy again in the NRL - even a handful of games - and I hope I can play my part for this club at whatever level."

It's a prospect that intrigues McFadden.

"When he is on the field, he has a really strong voice and he understands the game really well," McFadden says.

"It will take him a bit of time to find his feet but we have a long-term view on him and he is going to be a valuable asset for us.

"Some of these guys haven't even heard of Ali - they are so young - but he is very influential in our young group."

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