Wests Tigers recruit Tui Lolohea says he is relieved to be back playing first grade and is looking forward to playing in his preferred positions of five-eighth or fullback rather than being shoehorned into a role in the outside backs.
One of the key factors behind Lolohea’s departure from the Warriors was a disconnect with coach Steve Kearney, who preferred to use him in the three-quarter line, while Lolohea views himself as a fullback or five-eighth having spent almost the entirety of his junior career in those two positions.
Having been granted a release to join the Tigers mid-season, Lolohea was swept straight into first grade following the departure of Mitch Moses to the Eels while halfback Luke Brooks is still sidelined with a hamstring complaint.
Lolohea’s first outing showed plenty of promise, with five tackle breaks and some good kicks, coupled with plenty of rustiness including some poor passes to concede possession and a defensive misread in the lead-up to a Tyson Frizell try in the 16-12 loss to the Dragons on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m pretty excited, it’s been a big week for me,” Lolohea said after the game.
“It was good getting out there with the boys and being back in first grade. It’s all about getting better now. I’m disappointed about the loss but I’m happy deep down that I’m back playing grade. It’s only upwards from here and I look forward to getting better.”
It has been a frustrating year or so for Lolohea at the Warriors; while he played the full season in first grade last year split between wing, fullback and the bench, he hasn’t played NRL this year since Round 4. Those four caps saw him start twice on the wing and once each in his preferred positions of fullback and five-eighth before being demoted to the Intrust Super Premiership.
“It was pretty tough, pretty rough. I’m happy that I’ve overcome that,” Lolohea said.
“I’m happy I was able to commit to a decision which was pretty hard for me being in New Zealand my whole life and moving over the ditch to Australia to continue my career. It was pretty tough but I’ll sit back after the game and think and probably think it’s the best decision I could make.”
Being forced to play on the wing was “definitely” part of his frustrations, he added.
"In the beginning I had to accept it, like ‘this is what’s better for the team’… I know it’s a business and I want to play somewhere where I reckon I can get the best out of my footy.
“One thing I took into consideration [coming to the Tigers] was a better pathway for me. Ivan has given me a pathway to play in the halves and he’s not expecting to chuck me in there and do some magic. He’s going to let me build my game. That kind of sold it for me. The pathway was a better opportunity for me.”
Lolohea looks set to play out the year at five-eighth for the Tigers before replacing Roosters-bound James Tedesco at fullback next year when Bulldog Josh Reynolds arrives to fill the No.6 jersey. Lolohea said he isn’t looking that far ahead but hopes fullback and five-eighth are his spots from here on.
“I grew up playing 50-50 in both positions,” he said.
“(I just want) no more in the outside backs. I didn’t play there in my career coming through as a young fella. Ivan has given me a chance to play in a position and make it mine for the rest of the year. I think it’s a good thing where I get to review my game every week and get better.”
Despite only landing in Australia on Sunday with two bags of clothes and no permanent address yet (he is staying with family while he looks for something permanent), the 22-year-old said his preparation wasn’t too bad, in large part thanks to plenty of assistance from coach Ivan Cleary and was happy to get through his first game unscathed despite being disappointed with the result.
“(I had) a couple of rusty touches but that’s footy and you can’t always be perfect. I’m excited to get better every week and learn from the mistakes I made the week before,” he said.