A looping cut-out pass to set up New Zealand’s final try in their World Cup warm-up match against Leeds marked the final act in Thomas Leuluai’s 20-season professional career last Sunday morning.
The 40-Test Kiwi, who played 85 NRL games across two stints with the Warriors, in between a long career in the Super League, captained New Zealand to a 74-0 win in a one-off cameo after he announced his retirement from all levels of the game earlier this year.
As Thomas took the field one last time in Leeds, back in Auckland his family, including dad James, a Kiwi icon through the 1980s who last year revealed he has Alzheimer’s disease, gathered to watch.
Thomas’ younger brother MacGraff told NRL.com it was an emotional experience not only because of James’ health struggles, but given it also marked the first time since 1999 that the family won’t have a relative playing in either the NRL or Super League.
The family tree includes Phillip Leuluai (uncle to Thomas and MacGraff) and Kylie Leuluai (cousin), who both played in the NRL and Super League, while MacGraff spent 12 seasons with Leigh and Widnes in the UK.
“It’s been a bit tough with my old man, but he still remembers the stuff from the past and can still tell you stories about Thomas growing up,” MacGraff said.
“This game was emotional, especially seeing the haka at the end there that the guys did for Thomas.”
Five years Thomas’ junior, MacGraff recalls finding out the hard way that his brother could play well beyond his size, and being among the first to witness his bone-rattling tackle technique.
“We had a lot of backyard games and run it straight challenges, but I learned from a young age that Thomas could tackle hard,” MacGraff said.
“Growing up in New Zealand, it was often more about who could put on a big shot than who could score a try. You’d try and impress your cousins and that with a big hit.”
That ability in defence impressed Warriors great Stacey Jones when Thomas joined the NRL squad as a teenager in the early 2000s.
“When I first met him he was probably half the size of what he is now, a pimply, skinny-faced kid in a school uniform, rocking up to training with the first-grade side,” Jones told NRL.com.
“He worked really hard to become the player he is, but it also didn’t take him long.
“He matured real quick. From a scrawny little kid to a mature young man in the space of about six months.
“For a kid of that age, at that time, it was amazing.”
Within two months of making his first-grade debut as a 17-year-old in 2003, Leuluai became a permanent fixture in the halves alongside Jones, but departed for the UK the following year after only managing nine games, mostly off the bench.
After two seasons in London, he signed with Wigan and began a fruitful partnership which saw him rack up 325 games for the club, and he’ll now become their assistant coach.
Jones said it was clear during Leuluai’s second stint in Auckland with the Warriors, between 2013-16, that he was destined to be a coach one day.
“You could tell. His knowledge of the game, his smarts, it is right up there with players I have seen,” Jones said.
“He understands both parts of the game. Tommy is very clever upstairs when it comes to attacking footy, but his defensive knowledge is probably just as good too.”
Among his career achievements, Leuluai won the 2008 Rugby League World Cup with New Zealand, tasted Challenge Cup glory twice and won the Super League title on two occasions.