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

Rugby League: The end is nigh for loyal Kiwi Leuluai

Thomas Leuluai has been turning in high-quality games for the Kiwis since 2003. Photo / Photosport
Thomas Leuluai has been turning in high-quality games for the Kiwis since 2003. Photo / Photosport

The looming Four Nations league tournament could be Thomas Leuluai's last hurrah in a Kiwis jersey.

The veteran departed with a one-way ticket to England on Wednesday, with his wife and daughter on the same flight.

After the tournament, which starts next weekend with Australia facing Scotland (Saturday NZT) and the Kiwis taking on England (Sunday NZT), Leuluai will set up base in the north of England ahead of his second stint at Wigan.

He's tipped for a coaching role at the club after his playing days end and won't be returning to New Zealand any time soon.

Despite Leuluai's pedigree and experience, it's easy to be "out of sight, out of mind" in the UK Super League. Kiwis have been picked from the Northern Hemisphere before -- Brian McClennan used a healthy contingent in 2005 and 2006 and Leuluai was regularly brought back by Stephen Kearney -- but it's a challenge.

"I'm getting older and, as that happens, you know that your time in the jersey is [winding down]," said Leuluai. "But I understand. I never thought I would always get in. I still have those aspirations but I understand my age and where I am at in my career."

Earlier this year, when his Wigan return was announced, Leuluai told the Herald he wasn't closing the door on the Kiwis and would be available "as long as he was playing".

But travel times mean he won't be a contender for next year's mid-year test against Australia, and form, fitness and the progress of other hopefuls will define his 2017 World Cup selection chances.

If this is the end, Leuluai can reflect on a remarkable international career. He made his debut as a quicksilver half in 2003 at Albany Stadium, becoming one of that rare group of Kiwis to beat Australia on debut.

He missed the 2005 Tri Nations triumph (broken leg), but was ever-present after that. Despite the emergence of Issac Luke, Leuluai was the starting hooker for both the 2008 World Cup final and the 2010 Four Nations final.

Leuluai also played a vital role in both the 2014 Four Nations victory and the 2015 Anzac test win.

Leuluai's longevity has been remarkable. He played alongside both Kearney and new coach David Kidwell, and is still on the scene as the likes of Solomone Kata and James Fisher-Harris emerge. The 31-year-old is recognised as one of the best defenders in the game and his direct running style complements halfback Shaun Johnson, although the suspicion remains that hooker is his ideal position.

While the Kiwis will rue the absence of Simon Mannering over the next few weeks, the presence of Leuluai is a fillip. He is one of just four players in the current squad who have played 30 tests or more, and his experience and attitude was sorely missed on last year's England tour.

"We haven't performed the best there," said Leuluai. "A lot of people underestimate the English, but they have got a really good team.

"There is a lot of talk about [the difference between] Super League and the NRL but, if you pick the top 17 guys from that competition, it's a strong team. We know not to underestimate them."

- NZ Herald

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