Fan favourite Ali Lauitiiti is coming home to finish his playing career with the Vodafone Warriors in 2016.
Recruitment and development manager Tony Iro today confirmed the legendary back rower has signed a one-year second-tier contract opening the way for him to return to where his top-level career began 17 years ago.
Lauitiiti is bringing his family back to Auckland after eight seasons with the Leeds Rhinos and another four with the Wakefield Wildcats in the English Super League.
“For Ali this is a chance to come back to where it all began,” said Iro.
“With his depth of experience he has so much to offer us as a leader and mentor both on and off the field.
“In realigning our squad our goal was to retain and recruit quality players while also ensuring we had a strong blend of experience throughout the wider group.
“While Ali is 36 now we saw he still has his range of skills when he played for Leeds against the Kiwis a few weeks ago.”
Iro stressed Lauitiiti had been secured on a lower second-tier contract, not as a top 25 player.
The man once dubbed the ‘Michael Jordan of rugby league’ was thrilled about the prospect of returning to Mount Smart Stadium after leaving the club in 2004.
The Auckland-born Mangere East Hawks junior wound up his playing time in England with a testimonial season at Wakefield before making his guest appearance against the Kiwis last month.
“As a family we’re excited about heading home after being away so long,” he said from Leeds.
“For me it couldn’t be better being given this chance to come back to the Warriors. I left a long time ago but the club has always been really special to me.
“While I’ve kept training I’ll have some catching up to do once I join the boys for training but I want to do all I can to help the coaching staff, the team and the club in any way I can.”
Vodafone Warriors head coach Andrew McFadden welcomed the prospect of having one of the club’s most popular players back in the fold.
“Ali has been an unbelievable player over so many years, which I saw first-hand while I was still playing,” he said.
“Having more experience in our group is so important as we prepare for 2016 and beyond. A player like Ali will add so much with his knowledge and his leadership.”
Lauitiiti became Vodafone Warrior #55 when he made a try-scoring NRL debut as an 18-year-old against North Sydney in 1998. He went on to play 115 games – scoring 33 tries – before signing for Leeds in 2004.
He quickly achieved legendary status with the Rhinos where he was a winner five times in six Super League grand finals and also helped Leeds to two World Club Challenge victories in 2005 and 2008.
Lauitiiti has scored more than 100 tries in 400-plus games for the Vodafone Warriors, Leeds and Wakefield.
He’s expected to arrive home in the next few weeks.
Date of Birth: July 13, 1979
Birthplace: Auckland, NZ
Junior Club: Mangere East Hawks
Position: Second row/prop
NRL Debut: Vodafone Warriors v North Sydney, North Sydney Oval, April 19, 1998 (Round 6)
Vodafone Warrior No: 55
NRL Career: 115 appearances, 1998-2004
NRL Points: 132 points (33 tries)
Super League Career: 294 appearances, 2004-2015
Leeds Rhinos: 200 appearances, 2004-2011
Wakefield Wildcats: 94 appearances, 2012-2015
Super League Points: 336 (84 tries)
Leeds Rhinos: 64 tries
Wakefield Wildcats: 20 tries
Rep Honours: Kiwis 1998-2006, All Golds 2007, Toa Samoa 2007-2010
Kiwi No: 677
Kiwi Test Debut: v Cook Islands, Madjeski Stadium, Reading, November 2, 2000 (Rugby League World Cup)
Kiwi Test Career: 19 Tests for Kiwis, 1998-2006
Kiwi Test Points: 28 (7 tries)
Other Teams: 4 Tests for Toa Samoa 2007-2010, All Golds 2007
Educated: Otahuhu College (Auckland)
Loved watching this guy play as a kid. Buzzing \ud83d\ude4c https://t.co/jW5TcIV0yQ— Shaun Johnson (@Shaun_Johnson90) November 19, 2015
VODAFONE WARRIORS | 2016 NRL SQUAD
Backs | Matt Allwood, Blake Ayshford, David Fusitu’a, Konrad Hurrell, Shaun Johnson, Solomone Kata, Thomas Leuluai, Mason Lino, Tuimoala Lolohea, Ken Maumalo, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Marata Niukore, Jeff Robson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Manu Vatuvei, Henare Wells, Jonathan Wright
Forwards | Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Charlie Gubb, Ben Henry, Ryan Hoffman, Ali Lauitiiti, Jacob Lillyman, Sam Lisone, Sione Lousi, Issac Luke, Simon Mannering, Ben Matulino, John Palavi, Upu Poching, Nathaniel Roache, Ligi Sao, Toafofoa Sipley, Bodene Thompson, Albert Vete