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As Jarrod Croker experiences the rush of emotions that accompany the opening whistle of an NRL match for the 300th time on Friday, that special feeling will be completely new for the player lining up opposite him. 

The Raiders captain becomes just the second specialist centre after Josh Morris to reach a triple century of games. On the other hand, Warriors rookie Ali Leiataua will become the 39th player to debut in 2023.

It's going to be a huge night in Canberra and the type of occasion that might be too much for some rookies, but in Leiataua's case he's already shown he can handle far more challenging events on a rugby league field.

Back in March of 2021 during a national U-20 game against Auckland in Christchurch, South Island player Christian Pese collapsed after suffering a stroke in the closing minutes.

Aged just 18 at the time, Leiataua – who despite lining up opposite him that day was close friends with Pese from their time together at King's College in Auckland – was the first person to respond and sat with his mate while medical staff attended to him on the field. 

Ali Leiataua comforts Christian Pese after he suffered a stroke during a U-20 game. Credit:
Ali Leiataua comforts Christian Pese after he suffered a stroke during a U-20 game. Credit:

The seriousness of Pese's condition quickly became clear and he was later placed into a medically induced coma, before undergoing a complex procedure to relieve swelling from his brain, which at the time doctors weren't sure he would survive. 

After the rest of his teammates flew home to Auckland, Leiataua remained by Pese's side for the next week, doing his best to support family members as they arrived in Christchurch. 

"I remember Ali being the first person I saw when I came to on the field," Pese told 

He was the first one there on the field and he has been there throughout my whole journey after the stroke. He has been one of my biggest supporters.

Christian Pese

"Ali wanted to stay until I got out of surgery, which they weren't sure I was going to make it out of, and he said he wasn't going to leave until he saw me come out.

"He's a great friend and that's why everyone that knows him loves him.

"We are real grateful for what he did for me."

That character and empathy came as little surprise to most at the Warriors, many of whom had known Leiataua since he joined the club as a 14-year-old. 

He gets his first name from his uncle, Warriors great Ali Lauitiiti, while older sister Onjeurlina was a top league prospect as well and played two seasons with the club in the NRLW. 

In picking Leiataua ahead of veteran Brayden Wiliame for the Raiders game, Warriors coach Andrew Webster made a powerful statement about his belief in the 20-year-old.

“He’s been fantastic in reserve grade, he’s been their best player,” Webster said of Leiataua. 

You are going to see a fearless player this week relishing the occasion.

Andrew Webster

“He knows that we have got so much faith in him, that we want him to have a crack this week on such an occasion.

“Someone is having their 300th game and someone is having their debut, so that’s pretty cool.”

A debut coinciding with a 300th match for an opponent is uncommon at the best of times, but it's extremely rare for it to occur in a direct positional match-up. 

Rugby league historian David Middleton found the next closest examples were of props debuting off the bench while starting front-rowers celebrated their 300th games.

From Goulburn to greatness: Croker to hit 300

In 2015 Chris Grevsmuhl did it on Corey Parker’s special night, while a year earlier both Matt Lodge and Mitchell Moses debuted in Brent Kite's 300th game. 

Eels prop Tim Mannah also made his first appearance in the same game Steve Price brought up 300 while at the Warriors. 

Such games are bound to be full of emotion, but Alan Ettles, who coached Leiataua in the Auckland U-20 side, doubts his former star will be worried.  

"He will handle it fine; he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s been in some pressure environments before and excelled," Ettles said. 

"At King's College he was playing before big crowds at a very young age and that will have given him some early insight into what it took to be a professional.

"He’s owned that centre position at [NSW] Cup level too. The Warriors haven’t had many NRL players in that squad, but the teams they have been playing have had a litany of NRL players, so he has had some class opposition to play against and has owned them."

Meanwhile Pese – who had the last of his required post-stroke surgeries earlier this year and has since returned to rugby league – will be among the throng of family and friends watching on from TV sets in Auckland when Leiataua becomes Warrior #282.

"I'll be super proud. I am buzzing," Pese said.

"I'll probably cry seeing it."

David Middleton, League Information Services, is author of the official annual of the NRL.

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