THIRTEEN YEARS ago Leeds Rhinos fans were warming to a new Headingley hero.
Rhinos had been the dominant team in the opening four months of the 2004 season and when ball-handling back-rower Ali Lauitiiti became available – after being released by New Zealand Warriors – the club’s management saw him as the final piece of a trophy-winning jigsaw.
Lauitiiti joined Leeds on a two-and-a-half-year contract and made his debut in a 34-6 home win over Salford on May 28.
The points were securely in the bag when Lauitiiti was introduced to the 14,239 crowd with half an hour gone and Leeds already 24-0 ahead.
It was a mixed debut for the former Kiwi Test star, who played 25 minutes over two spells, but had to be taken off with a facial injury suffered attempting to tackle Salford forward Sean Rutgerson.
Leeds began at a fast pace and went ahead through a try by Kevin Sinfield – who also kicked the first of his five goals – after just nine minutes.
Matt Diskin crossed 10 minutes later and on 25 Willie Poching intercepted a pass by Martin Moana near his own line and sent Mark Calderwood on a glorious 70-metre run.
Keith Senior went over for Leeds’ fourth try almost immediately and Francis Cummins also grabbed a touchdown before the break to send Rhinos in 28-0 ahead.
A half century of points – at least – seemed inevitable, but Salford dug in after half-time and Neil Baynes broke their duck with a try on 52 minutes, which Chris Charles improved.
Leeds added only one more try, 14 minutes from time, when Danny McGuire scored a long-range interception.
Overall it was a forgettable evening for Leeds, but Lauitiiti’s debut gave it lasting significance.
He scored his first try the following week, when Rhinos overcame Bradford Bulls 26-12 at Odsal and finished the year with nine touchdowns in 19 appearances.
More importantly, he also picked up a Grand Final winners’ ring and – despite missing the start of the season – was voted into the Super League Dream Team.
Lauitiiti stayed with Rhinos until the end of the 2011 season, his 200th and last game for the club being an Old Trafford victory over St Helens.