As a special treat to TotalRL readers, we’ve delved into the Rugby League World archives to give you the chance to read a big feature with former Leeds Rhinos great Kylie Leuluai.
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From the outside looking in, you would say Kylie Leuluai enjoyed something of a dream finish to his career. What most don’t realise is that the former Leeds Rhinos star endured what he calls ‘a year forget’. This is a man who was suffering so badly, he wanted the Headingley club’s 2015 Grand Final triumph to be over before it had even begun.
What better way to bring the curtain down on an illustrious career, spanning 16 years in the professional game?
A desperately-desired Challenge Cup triumph, a coveted League Leaders’ Shield and a richly-deserved seventh Super League Grand Final success.
On the face of it, things could not have been much better for former Leeds star Kylie Leuluai, who went on to retire following the Rhinos’ latest memorable evening at the Old Trafford.
The New Zealand international always planned to hang up his boots at the end of the 2015 campaign, eyeing an entrepreneurial future, blended with a hint of professional sport.
However, Leuluai’s career climax wasn’t without adversity. His Rugby League exit threatened to come much sooner than first anticipated and, at times, the powerful front-rower has revealed how he wished it had.
Last summer, following months of rehabilitation after nursing a shoulder injury, the then 37-year-old returned to the club’s Kirkstall-based training base.
Conditioning staff had put in place a short, pre-season styled training camp to bring Leuluai back up to speed.
But it came to an abrupt end.
Following a routine warm-up, the veteran Kiwi star found himself in a state of near unconsciousness.
What had been originally diagnosed as a bad bout of asthma subsequently became a serious heart condition, requiring surgery involving the restarting of the body’s most vital organ.
Further tests showed how Leuluai was suffering from an arrhythmia, more commonly described as ‘heart rhythm problems’.
In the weeks and months which followed, as he bravely went on to play his part in both the Challenge Cup final and the Super League Grand Final, the Auckland-born prop suffered much torment.
Today, almost 12 months after undergoing the required heart surgery, Leuluai is heading up the Rhinos’ player welfare programme, running one of the city’s fast-growing cleaning firms and lending a helping hand in the coaching department at former colleague’s Francis Cummins’ all-new Rugby School of Excellence.
His stage beyond rugby was perfectly set, though the journey to it pushed Leuluai to breaking point.
What any rugby league pundit would deem the dream season, particularly given it was his last, proved a living nightmare for the one-time Manly Sea Eagle.
“In all honesty – and some people wouldn’t believe this – I could not wait for the Grand Final to be over and done with,” Leuluai told RLW.
“Although I didn’t know what it was at the time, my condition was at its worst going into that game and from the minute I stepped out on to the field I knew I was going to have trouble.
“Including the last year, I played for two full seasons with the problem. I initially thought it was asthma, so I was using an inhaler but it got pretty desperate at times. I knew there had to be something more.
“I had been out for a while last year with a fairly bad shoulder injury. When I came back to training, during one of the warm-ups I found myself flat out on my back. I didn’t exactly collapse but it wasn’t good.
“There was some relief when my diagnosis became clear but, despite the treble, which was obviously very special, 2015 proved a year to forget for me.
“I had to have an operation about a month after the Grand Final, I was becoming desperate.
“It wasn’t a pleasant procedure and, although the doctors said it was straightforward and fairly risk-free, I was pretty scared. When you are messing with your heart, it is pretty serious.
“The operation involves surgeons basically restarting your heart. They go through the arteries in your legs and work their way up.
“It is designed to put a stop to the irregularities, missing a beat so to speak, that I had developed.
“Beforehand, I was in a lot of discomfort on the field and what I probably hadn’t realised at the time was my state of mind.
“Only this year, while I have been doing my player welfare work with the Rhinos, have I realised that I was suffering quite badly with depression. I went through a really bad bout of it.
“I didn’t want to face training and I didn’t want to play matches. I couldn’t face even being at games.
“When you know you cannot compete at the level you want to, and there is pretty much nothing you can do about it, that is difficult to take. It is beyond a frustration.
“I feel heaps better having now had and recovered from the surgery. I have been given a new lease of life and I am excited about the future.”
Cousin to Thomas and Macgraff Leuluai, Kylie succeeded Headingley hero Barrie McDermott into the position of player welfare manager at Leeds Rhinos.
In the latest chapter of his story, the ex-Sydney Roosters man has embarked on a career in business.
He recently incorporated Clean Gorilla Limited and Leuluai is thinking big.
“I am really ambitious about making waves as an entrepreneur, taking after my father,” he added.
“He ran a cleaning business for more than 20 years and I am following in his footsteps.
“The idea is to kick it off in the commercial, industrial and residential cleaning sectors and then push on with other franchises.
“The sky is the limit really. I would be keen to look at building, gardening, whatever really.
“This is the way to start, though. The overheads are low, little capital is required and it is a big and exciting marketplace to get into.
“After playing in the Grand Final, I started speaking to Barrie McDermott about a role he was vacating at the club.
“He was the player welfare manager and it was something I was keen to look into. When he left I ended up taking over the reins on a part-time basis.
“When you look around the other clubs in Super League, there are a number of former players in player welfare management roles.
“It is all about taking care of the players at the club, checking they are happy in what they are doing, ensuring they have everything they need, looking at education programmes with them and helping them consider life after rugby.
“I have really enjoyed the challenge, it has been a huge learning curve for me. I guess the slight stumbling block would be that because the majority of the players are still quite close to me, as we only finished together 12 months ago, they find it difficult to open up.
“But that will come in time, I am certainly noticing differences with the guys coming in and the younger players coming through, who are far less aware of who I am.”