WORLD CUP ace Tuimoala Lolohea could have a similar impact on Leeds Rhinos as Ali Lauitiiti did a decade ago, it has been claimed.
Lolohea, a 23-year-old half-back who can also play full-back, centre or wing, will join Rhinos next season on a three-year contract.
He scored three tries in Tonga’s World Cup campaign last year which ended in a narrow semi-final loss to England and has played 71 times in the NRL for New Zealand Warriors and his present club Wests Tigers.
Lolohea is the first signing made since Kevin Sinfield rejoined Rhinos as director of rugby, though negotiations began before his appointment last week.
“He is a big signing for us and it is similar circumstances to the Ali Lauitiiti signing,” said Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington.
“He is a very exciting attacking player with lots of talent and speed and is very keen to join us.”
Lauitiiti linked up with Rhinos midway through 2004 and went on to become one of the club’s greatest overseas players, but Hetherington ruled out the possibility of Lolohea joining Leeds this year.
“Wests will not release him until the end of the season,” he said.
Sinfield is equally confident Lolohea will be a big hit for Rhinos.
He said: “It is rare in the modern game for any Super League club to sign an international-class 23-year-old from the NRL and I am sure he will be a popular addition to our squad.”
He is a very exciting attacking player with lots of talent and speed and is very keen to join us.Gary Hetherington
Of his new challenge, the player himself insisted: “A lot of people have said there is a lot more attacking in Super League and that is the style of play I like.
“I am looking forward to finding out what the Super League competition is all about.”
Lolohea was a member of the New Zealand side who played Rhinos at Emerald Headingley three years ago to prepare for their three-Test series against England.
“That was special,” he recalled.
“People talk about the passion the English fans have for the game, but I have seen it for myself and it was definitely a factor when I was thinking about who to sign for.”
Meanwhile, Hetherington confirmed Barry Eaton, who worked under previous team boss Brian McDermott, is no longer one of Rhinos’ assistant-coaches.
But he said: “He will be continuing in another, yet to be decided, role.”
Eaton, a former Wakefield Trinity, Dewsbury Rams and Batley player and ex-coach of Keighley Cougars and Hunslet, has been a full-time member of Rhinos’ staff since 2016.