From the NRL to the RFL: How Ricky Leutele made the transition to the Wolfpack
The 2016 NRL Grand Final saw the Cronulla Sharks face off against Melbourne Storm in front of 83,000 passionate fans at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Australia. The Sharks had not won a Premiership in their 50-year history while the Storm had raised the trophy four times in just 18 seasons of existence.
With the Sharks leading by just two points, the final siren cut through the impossibly tense atmosphere, signaling that an entire season would come down to the final play. The ball shot like a pinball through the hands of multiple Storm players before ending with towering enforcer Marika Koroibete. His only chance of stealing a last gasp victory for Melbourne was to run through the only person standing in his way.
Make the tackle, bring Koroibete to ground, and the Sharks win their first NRL Premiership after half a century of waiting. Fail to halt the charging winger and Melbourne would break Cronulla hearts by ripping the trophy from their grasp at the last possible moment.
Leutele did what he has done his entire career. He delivered. As Koroibete hit the ground under the weight of a perfect tackle, the crowd erupted and began to celebrate an historic night in Australian sport, a celebration made possible by a soft-spoken, Australian-born Rugby League player of Samoan descent.
After signing with the Wolfpack ahead of the 2019 Season, Leutele knew that he was about to embark on a journey very different to the one that had led him to the summit of Australia’s NRL competition. After nine years with the Sharks, the silky-skilled centre traveled the length of the globe in late 2018 to reach Manchester, England to meet his new teammates for the first time.
“I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know anyone. I know a few of the boys, like Chase Stanley, from the NRL but they hadn’t arrived yet so my first days I was nervous but the boys were so welcoming. They just want to learn. That’s the really cool thing about it.”
An extremely relaxed, low-key character, Leutele is not one to glowingly recall his successes or tout the abilities and experience that have already been of such value to the Wolfpack. Instead, he is grounded in the total enjoyment he finds in Rugby League and the opportunities it has provided for himself and his young family. It is clear when hearing him speak just how important it is that his playing career coincides with what is best for those most important to him.
“I’d been at Cronulla for about ten years so I think we needed a change of scenery and there is no better team to do it with than the Wolfpack. It was something different for me and my family. I get to go to England, I get to go to Toronto and see different parts of Europe and North America. Plus our kids are still young and they get to do it with us, so to be a part of the first transatlantic team was something that really appealed to me.”
Now regarded as one of the most durable players in the sport, Leutele missed just one game for the Wolfpack in 2019, but it was a string of frustrating injuries early in his career that led to a fitness regime that has seen him become a stranger to the Club’s medical staff. Debuting for the Sharks at just 20 years of age, Leutele looked set to light up the NRL in 2011 but he would manage just 12 games across the next three seasons due to recurring injuries.
“2010 I debuted and then 2011/2012, I was carrying injuries and was in and out of the squad. I had a massive preseason leading into 2013 and I started strong that year but then got injured in Round Three and it put me out for the entire year. Around that time, I totally changed the way I look after my body when it comes to preparation and recovery and it has paid dividends for me, it has worked out so well. I will continue to do the same for the rest of my career now.”
Leutele barely missed a game for the Sharks in the ensuing five years, a testament to his work ethic both on and off the field as well as his standing within the squad. Someone that was a large part of Leutele’s transformation, despite not fully knowing it themselves, was new Wolfpack signing Sonny Bill Williams. Lining up against Williams early in his career, Leutele immediately knew that he was something special.
“He was one of my idols growing up so it is crazy to think I get to play games with him now, it’s so exciting. It was weird playing against him in 2013 and 2014 in the NRL, I was star-struck playing against him. He was just on another level. He was massive but still so fast and skillful. He was so professional. He never looked flustered, never let anything get to him, he just got on with the job.
He’s going to bring a lot of attention to the Wolfpack but that’s just the off-field stuff he brings. On the field, I think he will be a real leader for us, the way he was for the Roosters, Bulldogs and All Blacks and everyone else. When he talks, everyone listens and it’s just eyes on him to hear what he has to say. It will be awesome to see how he carries himself and how professional he will be.”
Leutele enjoyed an extremely successful debut season with the Wolfpack, quickly becoming a mainstay in the starting team and one of the most important pieces of Head Coach Brian McDermott’s arsenal. As always, Leutele performed his best on the biggest stages, registering a match-winning hat-trick in the Wolfpack’s Semi-Final victory over Toulouse Olympique and finishing as one of the best afield in the Grand Final against Featherstone Rovers.
“I love finals footy and I just have fun when I’m playing so it’s great. Finals don’t come around often and when they do you just have to enjoy the week, enjoy the build-up and just have fun. Be switched on all day and stay focused but make sure you have fun. It’s mad playing at Lamport Stadium. It feels like there are about 20,000 fans there because they are so loud and so close to the field. It feels like they are on top of you. I love playing there.”
With the Super League now on the horizon, Leutele has switched his focus to 2020 and believes that the Wolfpack have only just begun the quest to achieve their full potential.
“I am confident in our playing group and the style that B-Mac (Head Coach Brian McDermott) brings to the team. I’m just excited we are there in the Super League and now we get to show what we can do in the top flight. It is going to be a long year because we have our first friendly in January and hopefully don’t finish until October. It will be hectic but it’s our maiden Super League season and it is going to be so much fun.
The whole team is just great, they are just keen to play and train and we have plenty of fun. That has played a big role in keeping us all fresh, I felt great all year and already can’t wait for 2020. They are such good guys and I am just having fun and really enjoying my time with the Wolfpack.”
The idea of having fun and enjoying life is constant when discussing Leutele’s journey. A faultlessly positive person, he and his family have completely embraced life in Toronto and are full of praise for the iconic city that has welcomed them with open arms.
“My family and I love Toronto. There is so much going on. Everyone is happy, everyone says hello and I just love it. I went along to the Raptors, Blue Jays, Maple Leafs, the CFL, everything. There is just so much sport. It is a great city.”
As the Wolfpack prepare for their historic maiden Super League Season, a year that will welcome international superstar Sonny Bill Williams to the Club, fans can rest assured in the knowledge that in the biggest moments, on the biggest stages, Ricky Leutele will stand up and do what is required to deliver victory for his team. He has shown time and time again his ability to do the right thing at the right time and his philosophy of constant improvement means he will always be a trusted and loved member of the Wolfpack family.
“Always listen and take on board what your peers and coaches have to say. They are all there to help you become a better player. Just train hard and look after your body. Those are my main three lessons from my career. If you do those things you give yourself every chance to play well and be better next week.”