If you go off the back of his last few years in the game, Warrington Wolves’ signing of Gold Coast Titans prop Leilani Latu doesn’t seem that impressive.
After all, he made only three appearances, in three losses, for the NRL’s bottom side in 2019. Add to that the fact that he only managed six appearances in the previous year, gaining one win.
But if you scratch the surface, you see that Latu has the potential to be a superb signing for the Wolves if he can recapture the form he showed for Penrith Panthers earlier in his career.
He made 49 appearances in the NRL for the Panthers in three years, earning selections for the Indigenous All Stars team in three consecutive years, scoring two tries and notching two wins.
He also started for Tonga against Fiji in 2017 in the build-up to their World Cup campaign, scoring two tries in that game too.
There’s no doubt that he can find the try line from the front row and is an immensely powerful ball runner with plenty of ball skills to boot. A classic Pacific Island forward who is full of quality. So why is he coming over to England having only played nine first-team games in two years?
Latu started his NRL career with the Panthers in 2015 but by the end of 2017, he was signing with Gold Coast Titans. Upon his departure, Panthers General Manager Gus Gould said: “He has worked extremely hard to become a representative class front-row forward.
“He has been tremendous for our club and his release from Panthers is purely a salary cap management decision.
“He is a great acquisition for his club and we wish him well in the future.”
And Gould wasn’t wrong to sing the front-row forward’s praises.
During Latu’s time with Penrith, 2016 was his stand-out year. Penrith made the semi-final stage of the competition, losing to eventual Grand Final winners Cronulla Sharks and Latu monopolised the front row, starting ten games in a row as they charged into the Finals with six straight victories.
Their season was kickstarted by a comeback victory over Manly Sea Eagles in which Latu scored off a dummy half pass from Matt Moylan, one of four tries he scored that season.
But the sad truth is for Latu, he is one of a number of players from that team that showed huge promise but have had to move elsewhere, mainly due to salary cap pressure, and have since fallen off the radar or certainly not achieved their potential.
Other players that played in that game who have since left for salary cap reasons are Tyrone Peachey and Bryce Cartwright (Titans), Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Bulldogs) and Reagan Campbell-Gillard (Eels). Meanwhile Trent Merrin, Suaia Matagi and Sitaleki Akauola, all familiar faces in Super League, also played for Penrith.
When the Titans initially signed Latu from the Panthers, Gold Coast Head Coach Garth Brennan said he expected him to “form a major part of our forward pack for many years to come,” and that he’d “had three strong years in the NRL.”
Latu was one of two players signed by the Titans from Penrith ahead of 2018 with the other being Cartwright.
Cartwright was on the verge of New South Wales selection when he joined Gold Coast but 2018 was a horrible year for him as he slipped out of the Titans team after round 12 and wasn’t seen for several weeks and has since struggled to maintain a place in the worst side in the NRL.
The Titans have faced questions in recent years, after the signings of Latu, Cartwright and Peachy from Penrith, asking whether they are simply just a dumping ground for Gus Gould’s rejects.
Brennan said later in 2018 when questioned about Latu and Cartwright’s apparent flop at the Titans: “You can go through all the clubs that have invested heavily in players who haven’t aimed up. You win some, you lose some.”
“Recruitment, you can’t get them all right all the time. Sometimes the negative ones take all the publicity and they forget the good ones.”
Obviously the move north didn’t work out for either Latu or Cartwright but the fact that the Titans, in late 2017, signed Latu to a big three-year deal allegedly worth almost $500,000 has to be a positive for Warrington fans. After all, it’s not like Latu is passed his best at 26. In fact, when he turns to 27 at the start of February, it’s likely he’ll be reaching the peak of his playing career.
Warrington fans will be hoping that the Titans’ loss is very much their gain.