FIRE DOUSED | After returning to finals action in 2015, the St George-Illawarra Dragons struggled un...
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Every so often a player comes out of the blue and makes such an impact that you cannot help thinking of the future.
Such is the case with rugby league's Epalahame Lauaki, who exploded into the wider public domain in round 12 of the 2002 Bartercard Cup and is in the starting lineup for the Warriors preseason game against Penrith at North Harbour Stadium on Sunday night.
While still a schoolboy, playing for his Glenora Bears team against Northcote Tigers at Ericsson Stadium in a Warriors curtainraiser, the athletic second rower scored a hat-trick of tries using a combination of skill, speed, guile and strength.
It prompted the obvious questions: who is this guy and where did he come from?
Born in Tonga, Lauaki arrived in New Zealand at the age of five with his parents, five sisters and three brothers.
Working his way up the junior grades with Waitemata and Te Atatu, he shifted from Waitakere College to Kelston Boys High when his family moved to Glendene.
Kelston may have a reputation as a rugby school, though its first XIII in the last few years has carved its own name with national and Auckland titles.
Lauaki never harboured serious thoughts of switching to rugby.
"I just like playing league. When I went to Kelston I played one game of rugby for the first XV but then I got signed up by the Warriors (a development contract)."
Known as Hame to some of his mates and associates, he prefers his full first name.
But his 2002-03 Glenora Bears Bartercard Cup coach Dean Hunter still calls him Hame.
"He's got so many X-factors. You couldn't coach what he has. When Hame decides to play, not many guys can turn on the spot like him. I told him he could be one of the top five players in the world one day.
"He's a nice young man, very receptive with good morals and values. The best thing about it is he's recognised his ability and he's using it, not abusing it," says Hunter, now taking the Counties Manukau Jets.
Hunter says he wouldn't be surprised if Lauaki cracked first grade this year.
"He's just special."
Lauaki clearly has a lot of respect for his former mentor.
"Dean was a good coach. He just told me to play my natural game."
He didn't slip through the net of Warriors head coach Daniel Anderson, who noticed him playing for Akarana in the 2002 national (NJC) under-18 competition. Now he is on a full contract which will expire in 2006.
"His strengths are his flair, offload and evasion. He's a strong tackler with a knack for scoring tries," Anderson says.
Chances of Lauaki playing NRL in 2004 are dependent on his form, the form of others in his position and injuries, says Anderson. who hints he may be used primarily off the bench
Competition will be stiff, particularly with the return to full fitness of Ali Lauiti'iti and the claims of Wairangi Koopu, Karl Temata and Awen Guttenbeil.
The softly spoken Lauaki has slotted into training with few problems: "They're a good bunch of guys. Ali is a really good guy. He makes me laugh at training."
Anderson's expects his work rate to improve as he gets older.
"The reason for this is he is in his first full year as a professional player and the volume of his training develops his capacity to sustain his fitness over a longer period."
Should Lauaki miss the selection cut for any NRL matches he will return to the Glenora Bears for Thursday night team training before the weekend's Bartercard Cup matches.
His older brother Sione has taken the rugby union path. The 22-year-old was a standout performer at loose forward for both the champion Waitemata and Auckland NPC sides in 2003, winning himself a Chiefs Super 12 contract.
Sione scored a try last week in the Chiefs Super 12 opener and the Lauaki family will reunite next Friday night when he travels to Eden Park to meet the Blues.
Family support is central to the Lauaki players.
"My mother might come and watch me and my father will then go and watch Sione if we are playing on the same day. Then we go home and talk about our games together. When I played in the pre-season game in Hamilton (against St George Illawarra) a couple of my uncles came and watched," Epalahame says.
He scored a try in that match, watched by an extraordinary crowd of over 20,000 at Waikato Stadium.
For now, the focus is on making that squad of 17 for each match. He will have a final opportunity to do that when the Warriors meet the Panthers in its final pre-season hitout this Sunday at North Harbour Stadium.