Tuqiri poised for amazing kangaroo comeback

Winger's colourful journey could come full circle this weekend, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

When the phone call came this week telling Lote Tuqiri that he was wanted to pull on an Australia rugby league jersey once again, it was totally out of the blue. The 31-year-old was tiling his roof in Sydney when he was told that he had been drafted into Australia's squad for the upcoming Four Nations, thus completing a remarkable comeback for the winger who has previously played for both Fiji and Australia at rugby league, and, during a seven-year stint in union, which included a season at Leicester, also turned out 67 times for the Wallabies.

Having returned to his original code after the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) cancelled his contract in July last year in controversial circumstances, Tuqiri's form for Wests Tigers has been so good that he has been called up as the replacement for Jarryd Hayne, who has had to pull out of the Four Nations with a torn hamstring.

"I always had confidence in my ability," Tuqiri said. "I didn't come back to have a holiday or anything else. I knew that I had a lot to give and I'm reaping the rewards from playing in a good team.

"It's been a pretty memorable year for myself and now to get called up into this squad makes it even better. "I'm not content, but I'm certainly happy with where I'm at and over the next year with the Tigers I'll certainly improve."

If he plays for the Kangaroos in the coming weeks, that would make the Fiji-born star the first international to switch codes and come back and win caps at his former game. A friend pointed out that possible distinction to him. "You might be a tri-international or something," he was told. "It's a great honour, but probably something you don't look back on until you finish," replied Tuqiri.

If Tuqiri does make it all the way back into the fold, it will be the latest twist in an extraordinary career. Born in Suva, but brought up in Brisbane, he first came to prominence with the Broncos, going on to play for Queensland in the State of Origin and five times in the green and gold of Australia.

He then became the prize scalp in the ARU's new tactic of raiding league's ranks, going on to score 30 tries for the Wallabies. It was rarely a serene time for him in his adopted code though, with a couple of heavy suspensions and rumours constantly circulating and re-circulating that the winger wanted to go back to league.

Finally, the ARU tore up his lucrative contract when he was allegedly caught entertaining a young woman at the team hotel, in beach of ARU rules. He was not quite finished with rugby union, playing 16 games for Leicester Tigers last winter, but his destiny lay back in the 13-a-side discipline.

Wests Tigers signed him on a three-year contract and although there was initial scepticism about his ability to make a success of his return, he was one of the stand-out players of the last National Rugby League season.All the same, it came as a surprise, especially to him, when the phone call came this week about his international recall. "I probably didn't expect it after not getting a call after the train-on squad," he said. "It's always a great feeling to pull on what is a revered jersey and hopefully I'll get a chance to put it on over the next few weeks."

Tuqiri might have to wait a while for that and for the opportunity to become a two-way trailblazer, although he has recovered from a rib injury he picked up in the NRL finals series and is available for Australia's opening match of the Four Nations against Papua New Guinea at Parramatta on Sunday.

The St George Illawarra pairing of Brett Morris and Darius Boyd are set to be installed as Australia's first-choice wing combination. If either of them loses fitness or form, however, Tuqiri is waiting in the wings to make a little bit of sporting history.

An avid Tweeter, Tuqiri took to the web yesterday to reply to the many well-wishers who had sent him messages of congratulations. "Thanks for all the congratulatory tweets! Great to have a chance to wear the Green and Gold again," he said.

Former Brisbane Broncos and Wallabies team-mate Wendell Sailor was one of the first to drop him a line: "Congrats to one of my best mates @LoteTuqiri u are the real Dual international & the best. Great to see u back in the Roos awesome man."

The man he replaced in the squad was not far behind. "Congrats bra.. Fiji time ayy rock up when all the fitness is over haha good luck bra," Hayne wrote.

If there were any danger of England regarding him as a bit of a back number, then there is someone in their camp to tell them differently. Gareth Ellis is a team-mate of Tuqiri at Wests and has seen first-hand that he still has all his old scoring expertise.

However, he says that he is more concerned at the moment about another Tiger, the New Zealand captain, Benji Marshall, who will lead the Kiwis against England in Wellington on Saturday. Any trouble from Tuqiri will come further down the line, but his turbulent career suggests that it may well be on its way.

England camp buoyant in build-up to four nations opener with kiwis

Stuart fielden has praised the atmosphere in the England camp for the Four Nations as the best he has known. The Wigan prop, who is set to resume his Test career after a four-year gap in the tournament opener against New Zealand, says his old Bradford team-mate, coach Steve McNamara, had created the perfect mood within the squad.

"It's the best group of players, as regards being together, that I've known," he said. "There are no cliques and, credit to Steve, the atmosphere is spot on."

England's brightest young star, Sam Tomkins, is still not 100 per cent fit, suffering from a bruised pelvis, according to McNamara, although the player may train fully for the first time today. "I'd be very surprised if he wasn't fit for Saturday," McNamara said.

The Papua New Guinea coach, Stanley Gene, says he would like to be playing for the Kumuls in the Four Nations – not because they need him, but because they are so talented.

"He could play, I'm certain of that," said the PNGRL president, Garry Juffe. "But he's the general and the general cannot go on to the field of battle."