When he appeared in his first NRL match on May 2, 2003, Thomas Leuluai was then the Vodafone Warriors’ youngest debutant.
Still six weeks short of his 18th birthday, Vodafone Warrior #105 was injected from the bench in a 12-18 loss to Canterbury Bankstown at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium.
On Sunday he bookends his career as a Vodafone Warrior with his 85th and final outing when the club’s 2016 season ends against Parramatta at Mount Smart Stadium (6.00pm kick-off).
From an NRL tyro in 2003-2004 he is now a seasoned 31-year-old professional as he closes off his second stint at home since returning in 2013. In the intervening period he amassed 227 matches in England, 189 for Wigan (2007-2012) and 38 for the London Broncos/Harlequins (2005-2006).
There’s still more ahead as he looks forward to closing off his playing career with Wigan. With 312 top-level games plus 34 Tests for the Kiwis since 2003, he’s set to go well beyond 400 matches all up when it’s all over.
On Sunday, though, it’s a final chance to appreciate and salute a player who puts in consistently, driving himself to maintain levels he constantly demands of himself; when he doesn’t achieve them he’s always honest in his personal assessment.
Leuluai plays directly, bringing a high octane mix of intensity, aggression, enthusiasm, selflessness, courage and sheer will every time he plays. He provides the steadiness to balance Shaun Johnson’s flair; the Yin to Johnson's Yang.
This week Leuluai plays in front of family and friends in his hometown for the last time. If only it wasn’t ending now because he’s one player who deserved to finish his time in the NRL with another taste of finals football, something he savoured in 2003 but missed out on in this second term.
Together Thomas and his father James, a wonderful centre in the late 1970s and 1980s, share a special place in the game’s history with an unsurpassed father and son total of 63 Tests between them for the Kiwis. More are in store with Thomas expected to be involved in the upcoming Four Nations in the United Kingdom.
Get along to farewell Thomas Leuluai, a player who never seeks the spotlight but does more than enough to deserve it.
- In 2004, Cooper Vuna superseded Leuluai as the club’s youngest debutant when he made his first appearance aged 17 years 147 days.