Leuluai hints at five-eighth successor
News of Thomas Leuluai's departure from the New Zealand Warriors for Wigan at the end of the year answered one question, but raised several others about who might wear the club's No.6 jersey in 2017.
The logical replacement would appear to be Tuimoala Lolohea, a player with NRL Telstra Premiership experience who was slated to play five-eighth earlier in the season, before Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's season-ending injury saw him shift to fullback.
But another genuine option emerging is 19-year-old Ata Hingano, a standout talent for the club's reserve-grade side and a player blooded by coach Andrew McFadden in this year's Downer NRL Auckland Nines.
Hingano has also been included as 18th man for the Warriors' first-grade squad on two occasions this season, and is a player of immense promise according to Leuluai.
"Ata would [transition well to the NRL], I think he is a really good player," Leuluai said ahead of Saturday's clash against the Sea Eagles in Perth.
"He is very well balanced I think, he is a bigger body too and he carries the ball well.
"I think he will handle NRL quite easily and he is definitely one biting at my shoes at the moment too, so he is a good player and is going to be great for the club in the future.
"They (the Warriors) have got a lot of depth, obviously Tui is a great player with great potential, and he is obviously wanting to play in that six jersey too.
"I suppose he will most probably be the first cab off the rank, but Ata is playing really well in reserve grade and is a great talent too. There are a lot of tough decisions there for the club."
Last week Leuluai's departure was announced publicly – with the decision being known internally for most of 2016 – after the Warriors granted him a release from the last year of his contract on compassionate grounds.
The move will enable him to return to England with his English-born wife Natalie and their baby daughter.
A Warriors junior product, Leuluai spent eight seasons in the Super League before returning to Auckland in 2013.
His latest stint at the club has seen him offer stability to the spine, with time spent both at hooker and as a solid halves partner for Shaun Johnson.
When asked to assess his four years with the Warriors this time around, Leuluai said nothing but a premiership at the end of this season will leave him feeling content.
"I don't know, I suppose you are never really fulfilled unless you have sort of gone along and won the big one," he said.
"I suppose a few injuries here have left me disappointed that I haven't played as much as I would have liked.
"But I really enjoyed my time back here."
Round 19 will mark Leuluai's 78th first-grade appearance for the Warriors, while for Lolohea his demotion to the bench continues an up-and-down season where he has played fullback, wing and standoff, between battling a knee injury sustained in Round 7.