Family business faces crunch as Leuluais prepare for battle
Loyalties of biggest clan in rugby league will be tested tonight as cousins go head to head for a place in the Grand Final. By Dave Hadfield
Friday 26 September 2008
It is a complicated business being one of rugby league's Leuluai family this weekend. The game's biggest clan has three members all playing in their biggest games of the season. Wigan's Thomas and his cousin, Leeds' Kylie, are up against each other for a place in the Super League Grand Final tonight.
Watching them from the stand at Headingley will be their uncle Phillip, who has his own big day on Sunday, when he plays for Salford against the Celtic Crusaders in the National League One Grand Final. Needless to say, Tommy and Kylie will be at Warrington for that one. It goes with the territory when you're a Leuluai.
The family's roots are in Samoa, where Phil's parents were both born, but he grew up in south Auckland, the next-to-youngest of nine brothers. The eldest was James, a regular New Zealand international and a favourite at Hull, for whom he played in the classic 1985 Challenge Cup final at Wembley. The young Phillip was allowed to stay up late to watch and remembers a childhood in which rugby league played a massive part.
"I just remember us as a big, happy family, out there playing all the time; we were never an indoors family. I don't know about life being tough, but when you're the eighth out of nine there were a lot of hand-me-downs."
Most of the Leuluai boys played for one or other of the south Auckland league clubs, but Phil says he never took the game too seriously until he had a two-season stint in France with Limoux and UTC. From there, he played first grade in the NRL with Cronulla until the call came midway through last season from Salford.
When he arrived to join their unsuccessful attempt to avoid relegation from Super League, he had the disorienting experience of finding two of his nephews already playing in the same competition. James' son, Thomas, had played scrum-half for Harlequins and their predecessors, the London Broncos, before signing for Wigan, while Kylie was halfway through his first season at Leeds.
The senior Leuluai currently playing the game says his nephews will bring very different attributes to tonight's contest. The nimble Thomas will be alongside Trent Barrett at the Wigan control panel. "He's run into some good form, has Tommy, but he's been saying to me that Wigan need to stick to a particular game plan for this match," says his uncle.
Phil also has a lively appreciation of Kylie's qualities. "Man, he's strong," he says of the Leeds prop. "I wouldn't like to run into him too often. He just bends them in half at training."
Kylie has proved to be what might be termed a predictable player in a good sense, just running straight and tackling hard game after game. Tommy has had more up-and-down fortunes at Wigan, but seems to have established himself now and will have more responsibility yet after Barrett has departed next season.
With a foot in both camps, Phillip sidesteps the question of who he will support tonight. "I'll have to sit on the fence," he says. "I've even got two sons – one supports Wigan and one supports Leeds. I grew up as a Hull fan because of my brother James."
When Kylie and Thomas have resolved their family business, Uncle Phil will take centre stage. He already knows he will be playing Super League against his nephews next season. "But it would be perfect to go up as champions," he says. "I didn't know what relegation was when I came here. I'd never heard of it. I wondered what had happened to some of the old clubs, like Widnes and Halifax, and when we dropped down, there they were."
Along with the Celtic Crusaders, Salford are bidding farewell to that company, but he could have an on-field reunion with his nephews before the next Super League season.
For the World Cup in Australia, Thomas is the likely scrum-half for New Zealand, while Phil and Kylie are both in the Samoa squad.
Stranger things have happened than those two countries colliding in the semis, giving the extended Leuluai family another of those insoluble questions of where their loyalties lie.
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