AN END-OF-SEASON game three years ago sparked new signing Tui Lolohea’s move to Leeds Rhinos.
The 23-year-old former New Zealand Warriors and Wests Tigers half-back arrived in Leeds this week to begin a three-year contract.
He is set to make his Rhinos debut in the Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity on Boxing Day, but that will not be his first appearance at Emerald Headingley.
Lolohea was a member of the New Zealand team which beat Rhinos 34-16 at Headingley in a warm-up ahead of the 2015 Test series against England.
A full house of 20,158 created a party atmosphere as Leeds – newly-crowned treble winners – pushed the Kiwis hard before fading in the final stages.
Lolohea started at scrum-half, kicking two goals and the memory of that match – when Adrian Morley and Ali Lauitiiti were recalled by Leeds for a farewell appearance – has stayed with him ever since.
He said: “It was amazing, I’ll never forget that.
“That was one of the reasons [behind joining Rhinos] and Leeds is such a passionate club as well.
“I wanted to come here and play in front of the passionate fans.
“It will be good to have them cheering for me now.
“It [the game is 2015] was a great experience and I’m looking forward to that again and to meeting the fans.”
Fellow overseas recruits Konrad Hurrell and Trent Merrin are also due to arrive in Leeds in time for the Christmas fixture which will mark the full opening on the new South Stand.
“I am looking forward to the game on Boxing Day,” Lolohea said.
“It will be wierd; I have been thinking about it – you don’t get to enjoy Christmas too much with the game on Boxing Day, but I guess I’ll push my Christmas back a day and enjoy the game.
“The game’s nice and early, which is good and you get to enjoy it afterwards.”
Lolohea met his new team-mates for the first time at a training session yesterday, but there was one familiar face in Rhinos’ ranks. I know Nate [Peteru],” said the New Zealand-born youngster who has also played at Test level for Tonga.
“We went to school together. He’s from that area where I grew up.
“He has been calling me before I came over and he’s pretty excited.”
But Lolohea – whose partner and two children are due to arrive in England in around two weeks’ time – said Peteru was not involved in his decision to join Rhinos.
“It was kind of last minute,” he said.
“It [the opportunity] came and I took it straight away. There was no conversation with anyone, it was just me, my agent, my dad and my partner.”
Lolohea is younger than many NRL players who try their hand in Super League, but insisted playing in England was always part of his career plan.
“I never thought I would come over this early, but it was a goal of mine to play in the Super League when I was a bit older,” he stated.
“The opportunity is here now and, at 23 years old, I get to achieve one of my goals footy-wise so it is exciting times ahead.”