Once the ‘Michael Jordan of Rugby League’, Ali Lauitiiti Plans His Own Comeback
After 12 years away from the world's top rugby league competition, he's attempting to return.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Australia.
They used to call him the Michael Jordan of rugby league; a comparison as hyperbolic and unfair as they get in sport.
But if you were looking for someone who combined raw athletic skill, unpredictability, and a real joy for his sport into one man-sized package in the early 2000s, Ali Lauitiiti was your man.
He could do it all back then. Crowds, commentators, and coaches all asked the same questions: how the hell did he get that arm free? How did he get that pass away? How many guys does it take to pull him down? Three? Four?
For the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL, and, later, Super League's Leeds Rhinos, the Kiwi back rower was a video-game level star with a skillset made for YouTube highlight packages. Maybe the MJ comparisons were fair?
"Nah, that's not me," Lauitiiti tells VICE Sports. "They do have a name for me here, though."
Lauitiiti is standing in the home changing rooms, beneath the main stand, at Mt Smart Stadium in Penrose, Auckland. Running through his hair are unmistakable strains of silver.
"Hmm, what do they call me again? I'll have to think. It's some funny name, something about my white hair."
It is mid-afternoon on Easter Sunday, and the 36-year-old has just been part of the Warriors' reserve-grade team's 36-20 loss to the Wyong Roos.
The week before, Lauitiiti played his first game at Mt Smart—the Warriors home ground—in 12 years. He scored two tries then, but definitely looked off the boil today.
Lauitiiti first match for the Warriors reserve team promised big things
Hands were on hips and knees at breaks during play, and there were plenty of minutes off the field, too. There were no wild offloads, and no basketball-like passes with the try-line begging.
No sign of anything Jordan-esque. The body is "a bit rusty, and the knees are a bit cranky," he admits.
Regardless of who Lauitiiti once was, the man he is now is attempting something unheard of in the NRL. After a dozen years away from the world's top rugby league competition, he's attempting to return.
If Lauitiiti - who has played more than 400 professional league games in 18 years—gets a call-up to the Warriors first-grade team after round ten this season, he'll be the oldest player in the NRL since Manly's Cliff Lyons in 1999. Just getting on the field will make him the competition's oldest ever Kiwi.
The comeback trail began last November with a text message to his old Kiwis teammate Ruben Wiki—now the Warriors first-grade trainer—asking if the team needed any old veterans for 2016.
Wiki fired one back asking if he was serious. Lauitiiti, who had just finished a four-year contract with the Wakefield Wildcats in the UK, told Wiki he was. Recruitment manager Tony Iro rang a week later, and plans for a second-tier contract were eventually drawn up.
"I was coming home anyway, but it all started with that random text, really," the laconic veteran says.
"The Warriors came back and said they'll take me so I couldn't say no. It's a good way to come back here and play in front of my family and friends and end my professional career."
It could be argued that Australasian league fans never saw the best of Lauitiiti. His first stint at the Warriors—115 games between 1998 and 2004—captured imaginations and headlines, but he left the club after a falling out with chief executive Mick Watson, who would later claim Lauitiiti "didn't care enough."
"He left in his best form and became a cult figure in England," former Warriors coach Brian McClennan, who coached Lauitiiti at Leeds, says.
Ali making a mess of English defenders
"But the profile of the NRL has increased so much in the last decade—it has gone streets ahead of Super League—so unfortunately New Zealanders saw a brief glimpse of Ali, but not the whole lot."
The memory—and impact—of what he did do is obvious. Each carry or hit-up by Lauitiiti got the loudest cheers last Sunday, while ex-star halfback Andrew Johns, in town with the Knights for their clash with the Warriors the next day, waited patiently in the tunnel post-match to catch up with his former opponent.
Club icon Stacey Jones was teammates with Lauitiiti during his first stint at the Warriors; playing alongside him in the club's first-ever NRL Grand Final appearance in 2002.
As the coach of the Warriors reserve-grade team, he now finds himself directing the old veteran around the park, and has been impressed with how Lauitiiti's experience is rubbing off on the new guard.
"If you take it back to when he was first here, he was pretty shy and reserved," Jones says.
"Now he's not afraid to speak his mind, say he's stuffed up or where we can improve. For the young guys, that's invaluable"
"Ali's just a really down-to-earth guy," teammate John Palavi, who was just six when Lauitiiti made his debut, says.
"He's great to talk to, and he helps you with your game. You could say he's just got that presence. He calms you down, especially in those pressure moments, because he's been around for a while."
Sooner or later, Lauitiiti will roll the stone away from the final days of his league career, and play first-grade again. Injuries will undoubtedly pop up in the NRL squad, while Warriors captain Ryan Hoffman will likely be called into the Queensland State of Origin squad mid-season, creating an opportunity in the back row.
While the return will be a PR boon for the club, Jones says the Warriors are realistic about their expectations of what Lauitiiti could achieve in first-grade.
"We're not expecting miracles from Ali to come into the first-grade team any time soon," Jones says.
"But if we do require experience and a player like him to do a job for this team, he could add some value. He's still big and strong and can offload a ball. We aren't expecting him to be an 80-minute NRL player, but he's still got impact."
Lauitiiti is circumspect about the opportunity. He lends against a massage table that he's spent plenty of time on already, and shrugs his shoulders.
"If it happens, it happens," he says. "I've just got to keep working away on what I need to do—there's stuff I can do, in the games and in training to put me in a place to do my job well.
"For me, this is an opportunity to play, but also to give back. Just by encouraging the young boys in different ways, mainly off the field. If I can share a bit of my experience with the boys, that's awesome. I'm enjoying it."
After all, Jordan came back, didn't he—and so did another bloke on Easter Sunday. Speaking of unfair comparisons, that one takes the cake.
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