James Leuluai is one of the greatest ever players to have played for Hull FC, and given some of the personnel that have pulled on the famous irregular hoops, that’s a pretty big statement.
However it shows how high Leuluai was valued at the Black and Whites. He was, along with Gary Kemble and Dane O’Hara, one of the famous Kiwi trio of the 1980s.
Back then all three players were part of the New Zealand test side, and the signing of all three shocked the sport across both sides of the world. Given the magnitude of the coup, Hull clearly meant business, and they backed that up with the most prolific trophy winning spell the club has ever had.
Leuluai was at the heart of that success, and was nicknamed “Lullaby”, as he was always falling asleep, including, well so the tale goes, during an Arthur Bunting team talk. But with the fans he was a real star, both on and off the field, and given his pedigree it’s not really a surprise, galloping around the field like a gazelle with his socks wrapped round his ankles.
Within his first few performances at the Boulevard Leuluai had opposition defences quivering. He had pace, ability, he could beat a man, and he was exciting to watch. People took notice of what he did. Most admired him. He was brilliant – he had a sidestep like no other, and a dummy in his locker to leave most defenders in their wake.
Thanks to the wonders of YouTube his Hull FC exploits are there for all to observe, with his second Wembley try against Wigan in the 1985 Challenge Cup final one of the best you’ll ever see. The final has been regularly acclaimed as the best final of all-time and few will disagree. A gripping absorbing game, Sterlo vs Brett Kenny, it went right down to the end. Just a few more minutes and the Hull comeback would have been complete, but we were left to rue missed kicks at goal as Wigan edged a classic.
Leuluai though ran virtually the full length of the field to score. When he broke away he was almost always unstoppable, and he beat legendary Wigan duo Shaun Edwards and Henderson Gill on his way to the line that day. It was a sublime piece of agility and some try to score.
What’s equally amazing given Leuluai’s stature as a Hull FC player is that three years prior, in the 1982 Wembley final against Widnes, he was an unused sub, but obviously starred in the replay, providing the training ground perfected run around that allowed David Topliss the space to create his stunning try. Magical stuff. He was some player.
As well as the Challenge Cup, Leulaui’s spell at Hull brought three Yorkshire Cup wins, one John Player Trophy triumph and a League Championship. Whilst at the club Leuluai was also New Zealand’s Player of the Year in 1983, which highlighted his sheer class, given Down Under produced players playing overseas don’t usually get recognised for such awards – especially in the modern era. He made 29 test appearances for the Kiwis, scoring 14 tries.
At the Black and Whites Leulaui was a revelation, but all good things come to an end, and once his pace started to diminish he was loaned to Leigh. He briefly came back to Hull but was soon transfer listed and joined Wakefield, playing 51 games, before short spells at York and Doncaster finished his career.
James Leuluai hung up his boots in 1991 and will be forever remembered as a Hull FC legend – scoring 85 tries in 184 appearances. At his peak he was unplayable, with his socks rolled down on his ankles. He was such a gifted player and would be in most people’s pick for the greatest centre in any Hull FC All-time XIII.