Thomas Leulaui will be surrounded by former New Zealand teammates when he ends his decorated 20-season career leading the Kiwis in their Rugby League World Cup warm-up match against the Leeds Rhinos at Headingley on Saturday (6.00pm kick-off local time; 6.00am Sunday NZT).
After Leuluai announced his decision to retire at the end of the 2022 Super League season, Kiwi head coach Michael Maguire invited the 37-year-old to finish his playing days with a poignant final appearance in the New Zealand jersey.
Maguire has named a powerful line-up including 10 players who were Kiwi teammates during Leuluai’s 40-Test career from 2003-2017 – Jordan Rapana, Peta Hiku, Kieran Foran, Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Kenny Bromwich, Isaac Liu, Joseph Tapine, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Dean Whare.
Making their New Zealand debuts will be Canberra centre Sebastian Kris and Canterbury Bankstown hooker Jeremy Marshall-King plus Willie Isa, the ex-Toa Samoa international. The 32-year-old joins his Wigan teammate Leuluai and 2012-2017 Kiwi Whare – now with Les Catalans – as one of the three Super League guest players.
The Kiwis will be without the suspended Jared Waerea-Hargreaves plus fullback Joseph Manu. Also not considered were Penrith’s NRL premiership-winning trio James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and Scott Sorensen as well as Parramatta’s beaten grand finalists Dylan Brown, Isaiah Papali’i and Marata Niukore. They’re due to join the squad in Leeds on Saturday in time to watch the game.
Saturday’s occasion reprises the 2015 Headingley encounter between the Kiwis and Leeds when the Rhinos emotionally farewelled New Zealanders Ali Lauitiiti and Kylie Leuluai in a game the visitors won 34-16.
This time not only will the Kiwis give Leuluai a special farewell but the Rhinos will also do the same for one of their fan favourites Adam Cuthbertson (37), who has finished his career after more than 300 appearances in the NRL and the Super League.
Leuluai has made almost 500 top level appearances including his 40 Tests, more than 330 games for Wigan and 85 in two stints with the Vodafone Warriors after starting out with the club as a 17-year-old in 2003.
Saturday’s match further cements a link between the two opponents and the famous Headingley ground which now dates back 115 years. It was on October 26, 1907, that the trailblazing All Golds beat Leeds 8-2 in the first of 12 matches between two. New Zealand holds an 11-1 winning advantage.
New Zealand Kiwis:
Thomas Leuluai (C)