Leeds Rhinos Nostalgia: Why Ali Lauitiiti proved to be a sensational signing
LEEDS RHINOS hit the jackpot when they signed Ali Lauitiiti in the spring of 2004.
Lauitiiti, who is celebrating his 41st birthday today, spent eight seasons with Rhinos, making 200 appearances and becoming one of the most popular and successful overseas players in the club’s history.
Known as the Michael Jordan of rugby league, for his ball-handling skills, the big forward was the final piece in Leeds’ 2004 title-winning jigsaw.
Having been with New Zealand Warriors since 1998 and already a Kiwi Test player and former NRL second-rower of the year, he was a massive addition for the club.
Signed on May 10, Lauitiiti made his debut off the bench in a home defeat of Salford 18 days later and scored his first try the following week when Leeds won at Odsal.
Coming into an already very good team, he helped Rhinos finish nine points clear at the top of the table and then beat Bulls to pick up their first Super League crown.
A member of the following February’s World Club Challenge-winning side, Lauitiiti also played for Rhinos in their 2007, 2008 and 2009 Old Trafford victories and bowed out after coming off the bench in 2011 when Leeds won the title for the fifth time.
He was among Leeds’ scorers in their second Grand Final win, accepting Lee Smith’s pass and slicing past Matt Gidley for the touchdown which began Rhinos’ second-half rampage.
Lauitiiti was arguably at his peak for Leeds in 2005 when, though they finished second in all three competitions, Rhinos played some of the most thrilling rugby seen in the summer era.
He scored 14 tries in 33 appearances that year, including five as a substitute in a 70-6 thrashing of Wakefield Trinity Wildcats at Belle Vue.
He was the eighth player to score five tries in a single game, but the first forward.
Lauitiiti grabbed his first try four minutes before the interval and crossed again in the 51st, 55th, 59th and 62nd minutes.
One of his most memorable touchdowns came in a play-off qualifying semi-final at Knowsley Road later that season, when he outpaced the St Helens defence on an 80-metre dash to the line.
But his best try was scored against Wigan Warriors at home the following year, an almost impossible, acrobatic finish to put the ball down one-handed by the corner post on the South Stand touchline.
Lauitiiti’s Rhinos career started to wind down after the 2009 title success.
He was left out of the team for the 2010 and 2011 Challenge Cup finals – having collected a runner-up medal in 2005 – but recalled for the visit to Old Trafford nine years ago.
The 2011 Grand Final was his 200th and last appearance for Leeds before a move to neighbours Wakefield where he was equally popular.
Wildcats won their final seven games of the 2012 regular season to finish eighth in the table, before bowing out of the play-offs with a 42-20 defeat at Leeds. Lauitiiti was among Wakefield’s try scorers that evening, along with fellow ex-Leeds men Richie Mathers and Lee Smith.
He was only the second New Zealand-born player to reach a double century of games for Leeds, after full-back Bert Cook who played 201 times from 1947-1953.
When he finally left Rhinos, he was eighth on the club’s list of overseas appearance-makers.
Lauitiiti spent four years with Trinity before returning to New Zealand Warriors for a final season in their second-string and hung up his boots at the end of 2016.
His swan song in England was a guest appearance for Leeds at the end of their treble-winning campaign in 2015, when they took on New Zealand in a tour match at Headingley – Lauitiiti bidding farewell by taking part in a post-game haka in front of the South Stand.
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