Leeds Rhinos have won the race to sign New Zealand born half-back Tuimoala Lolohea from NRL side Wests Tigers.
A number of Super League clubs were reported to be interested in the Tongan international, who can also play at fullback, but it’s Leeds who have secured his services on a three-year deal starting in 2019.
He becomes the first confirmed signing for the Rhinos ahead of the 2019 season, and also the first made under the new management of Kevin Sinfield and James Lowes, although the club say talks with the 23-year-old had been underway for a number of weeks while ex-boss Brian McDermott was still in charge.
Lolohea joined Wests from New Zealand Warriors in 2017, scoring 4 tries and kicking 38 goals in 13 appearances in his first year with the Tigers, but has fallen out of favour this season due to Corey Thompson’s arrival at the club and the recent acquisition of Moses M’Bye from the Canterbury Bulldogs, while injury has also further reduced his game time.
Lolohea has played previously at Headingley, making his one and only appearance for New Zealand against the Rhinos in a friendly back in October 2015 as the Kiwis warmed up for their three-game series with England.
He has since switched allegiances back to Tonga, for whom he has made 8 appearances and scored 3 tries, and helped them to reach the World Cup semi-final last year before they were beaten 20-18 by England in a dramatic encounter.
His experience of playing at the home of the Rhinos played a part in his decision to move to Leeds, as he told the Rhinos website: “I have always remembered that game back in 2015 when I played at Emerald Headingley with the Kiwis. The singing and support for the Leeds boys was amazing and I can’t wait to play for those supporters.
That game was Kylie Leuluai’s farewell game for the club and I remember the warmth and passion the supporters had for him and the team, that was special. People talk about the passion that the English fans have for the game but I had seen it for myself and it was definitely a factor when I was thinking about who to sign for.”
On making the move to England, Lolohea commented: “I am really excited, it is a long way from home but a different challenge for me and something I am looking forward to. I want to be part of the Rhinos team and I can hopefully bring my energy to the game over there. It will be very different for me and a new way of life. I am still really young and this is a big journey for me and I want to make the most of my career and my time in England.
“A lot of people have said that there is a lot more attacking in Super League and that is the style of play I like to play. I am looking forward to finding out what the Super League competition is all about.”
Leeds’ Director of Rugby Kevin Sinfield said of his club’s new addition: “We are delighted to have captured a player of the quality of Tui for next season. It is rare in the modern game for any Super League club to sign an international class 23-year-old from the NRL and I am sure he will be a popular addition to our squad.”
The signing of Lolohea could also spell the end of the road for Joel Moon at the Rhinos, who has been strongly linked with a return to Australia, and it looks as though Leeds have moved quickly to secure a replacement before a possible departure for Moon has been sealed.