ALI LAUITIITI gained cult-status at Leeds Rhinos essentially from the very start of his career with the club in 2004.
The giant Kiwi second-row, such a marauding runner yet blessed with remarkably delicate hands, made an instant impact after arriving from New Zealand Warriors in May that year.
For many Rhinos fans, starved of success for so long, they dared to guess his capture could be the final piece in the jigsaw as they sought a first league championship since 1972.
They were right, of course.
However, if ever a game highlighted Lauitiiti’s value that campaign, it was the 28-24 win over Hull FC on June 25, 2004.
Twelve years ago, he came up with a crucial try that put the leaders in charge against opponents who were chasing hard behind, third in the table.
Lauitiiti had already plundered one try in the first half when he produced some trademark magic in the second to take the game away from Hull and maintain the club’s 100 per cent record at home.
In his own unique style, he exchanged passes brilliantly with Papua New Guinea wing Marcus Bai to secure his fifth try in as many matches for the Rhinos.
By the end of his Headingley career, the gifted forward would score 58 tries in 181 outings and be forever engrained as a Rhinos hero.
He is, of course, still going strong now at the age of 36, back where it all began with Warriors’ reserve-grade in Auckland after four years with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
Hull were furious, however, that they did not get more out of the game that night especially when Shayne McMenemy touched down off Shaun Briscoe’s head at a critical point in the engrossing second period but no try was awarded.
They had led 12-10 at half-time, Richard Horne having scored a penalty try and Nick Scruton – on loan from Leeds – adding another while Rhinos full-back Richie Mathers was off sin-binned.
Lauitiiti and Keith Senior crossed for the hosts who gained the lead via Chev Walker early in the second half.
Hull captain Paul Cooke’s kicking quality saw Briscoe hit back again but Lauitiiti came up with his killer play before Jamie Jones-Buchanan added another, leaving Colin Best’s late effort for Hull a mere consolation.
Chev Walker, the former Great Britain centre, was just 21 when Lauitiiti arrived at Headingley but recollected his “genius” as they went on to win that Grand Final together.
“Back in 2004, when Ali joined us at Leeds, we all knew the reputation he came with and all had utter respect for him,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“We were a very young squad that was still finding our feet in our careers.
“Ali was only a year or two older than us but he lit the NRL on fire.
“So, I suppose, going from past experience of big names, we might have thought he was going to have an ego.
“But you couldn’t be any further from the truth if you tried.
“In walks Ali - the shyest of men, very quiet and gentlemanly.
“After a couple of sessions you could see the skills he had and how special he was.
“For me though it came the day we stepped out on the field together.
“He was at second-row and I was his his centre.
“Ali said to me ‘I’m gonna do this cuz - you support me, run behind him, I will off load out my left and you score bro.’
“I did what he said. Bang. I scored. That in itself proved he was genius.”
Leeds Rhinos: Mathers; Cummins, Walker, Senior, Bai; Dunemann, Burrow; Bailey, Diskin, McDonald, Lauitiiti, Feather, Sinfield. Subs: McKenna, McDermott, Ward, Jones-Buchanan.
Hull FC: Briscoe; Best, Whiting, Eagar, Raynor; Cooke, Horne; King, Swain, Dowes, McNicholas, McMenemy, Lupton. Subs: Wilkinson, Higgins, Bailey, Scruton.
Referee: S Ganson (St Helens).