A key figure during the Kiwis’ halcyon 1980s era, the ultra-versatile A’au James Leuluai played Tests in four different backline positions – but it is as brilliant, elusive centre that he is chiefly remembered.


A breath-taking sidestep and blinding acceleration garnered 14 tries (one short of the Kiwis record at the time) in 29 Tests – including an incredible run of 11 touchdowns in 10 internationals from 1982-85 – and the apt nickname, ‘The Finisher’. Meanwhile, a glittering 185-game stay at Hull FC ultimately saw him inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.


Leuluai first grabbed attention on the representative scene as part of New Zealand Māori’s triumphant 1977 Pacific Cup team. Two years later, the 22-year-old Auckland rep – a product of the Ellerslie and Mount Wellington clubs – earned a maiden Test call-up, playing all three matches against touring Great Britain at centre and fullback.


The wiry speedster became a permanent fixture in the three-quarter line thereafter, while a two-try performance from fullback against Papua New Guinea in 1982 sparked Leuluai’s remarkable streak. He crossed in both Tests of the 1983 series against Australia, including the Kiwis’ famous 19-12 victory in Brisbane (after which he was named New Zealand’s player of the year), and terrorised the 1984 Lions with four tries in a 3-0 cleansweep.


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Leuluai featured prominently in the unforgettable 1985 series versus Australia, dotting down in both fixtures at Carlaw Park and celebrating in the iconic 18-0 third-Test win, and embarked on a second tour of Britain and France later that year.


“James Leuluai had the best sidestep in rugby league, at least until Benji Marshall came along,” veteran rugby league journalist, author and historian John Coffey says.


“He would have been a champion in the centres in any era. He was relatively slight but Australia had big centres like (Mal) Meninga and (Gene) Miles at the time and he handled those guys with his stepping and evasion and speed off the mark.”


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In the last 12 months of Leuluai’s Kiwis tenure, which finished in Papua New Guinea in 1986, he started Tests at centre, fullback, wing and five-eighth.


A decade on the England club scene began at Hull FC in the 1981/82 winter, playing in the club’s Challenge Cup final replay victory over Widnes at the end of that season, helping the Airlie Birds to the 1982/83 Championship and lighting up the epic 1985 Challenge Cup final, won 28-24 by Wigan at Wembley, with two second-half tries.



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Stints with Leigh, Wakefield Trinity, Ryedale-York and Doncaster followed before Leuluai hung up the boots in 1991.


“James’ longevity to go over to England and come back to New Zealand and play back-to-back seasons for a number of years, and that ability to play consistently for 12 months of the year was just amazing,” long-time Kiwis teammate and fellow 2022 Legends of League inductee Howie Tamati says.


Leuluai also played for Sydney heavyweights Manly in 1986 and spent two memorable seasons in Wellington.


In 1988, the 31-year-old starred in the province’s historic Tamati-coached win over Auckland, scored twice in a narrow loss to Great Britain and notched a brace of tries to inspire Petone’s grand final victory.


“It was the first time in 85 years Wellington had beaten Auckland in 85 years,” Tamati recalls.


“It was a great time for me in my coaching career and getting James was a masterstroke, we were good friends and he was only too happy to come down and play for Petone and Wellington. He was the guy everybody looked up to and respected. When he spoke, everyone was quiet.


“About an hour before leaving to go to the game (against Auckland) James spoke for about 30 minutes, about football and about people’s roles. I didn’t have to say a word. You could have heard a pin drop – the intense attention the boys gave to James that afternoon was just remarkable.”


Leuluai’s impressive coaching CV includes roles in charge of Wellington City Dukes in the Lion Red Cup, Bartercard Cup outfit Eastern Tornadoes and the 2002 Junior Kiwis, while he was a Kiwis assistant to Daniel Anderson and Gary Kemble and later coached Mangere East Hawks.


One half of the most prolific father-son combination in Kiwis history, Leuluai’s son, half/hooker Thomas, played 40 Tests for New Zealand from 2003-17.



Clubs: Ellerslie, Mount Wellington, Manly Sea Eagles, Hull FC, Leigh, Petone, Wakefield Trinity, Ryedale-York, Doncaster

Provinces: Auckland, Wellington


1979  3 Tests v Great Britain

1980  2 Tests v Australia

1980  2 Tests in Great Britain

1980  1 Test in France

1981  2 Tests v France

1982  2 Tests in Australia

1982  1 Test in Papua New Guinea

1983  2 Tests v Australia (home and away)

1984  3 Tests v Great Britain

1985  3 Tests v Australia (home and away)

1985  3 Tests in Great Britain

1985  2 Tests in France

1986  1 Test v Australia

1986  2 Tests in Papua New Guinea


New Zealand Representative:


Total Test Appearances: 29 matches – 14 tries (51 points)

Total Matches Played: 53 matches – 27 tries (93 points)




New Zealand player of the year (1983)

Junior Kiwis coach (2002)

Hull FC Hall of Fame