Why Lauitiiti was escorted away from the Warriors
IT seems impossible to believe now, but when Ali Lauitiiti left the Warriors in 2004 then chief executive Mick Watson instructed a staff member to escort him off the premises.
Lauitiiti, who has made an improbable return to the club this year and retains hopes of playing at NRL level again, has never spoken in detail before about his surprise exit from his hometown club.
But 12 years on he has finally revealed the bizarre circumstances behind his departure, which was probably the beginning of the end of Watson's reign.
Lauitiiti enjoyed a sharp rise after making his debut in 1998. By 2002, he was regarded as the most exciting forward in the game, with a prodigious offloading ability and incredible footwork and power. At times he was unstoppable, labelled the Michael Jordan of league by the Australian media during the Warriors' run to the 2002 grand final.
The following season was also successful, with the team desperately close to another grand final (they lost 28-20 to eventual premiers Penrith in the preliminary final).
However, things began to unravel in 2004. They had won just one of their first six matches when Watson called Lauitiiti into his office.
"I didn't really know where the meeting was going," recalled Lauitiiti. "There were all sorts of stories and analogies being talked about."
Watson then asked the 24-year-old to list his priorities in life. On a whiteboard, Lauitiiti wrote family and religion at the top, with the Warriors underneath.
"He wasn't happy with that," Lauitiiti said. "I said things I probably shouldn't have said. I didn't say anything nasty or anything, but I didn't respond the way they wanted me to.
There's something about Manly and, at this rate, it's going to be another frustrating season for the Warriors.
"But you can't really change a person. League was always going to be important for me, because it was my job. But it was never going to take away my family and church. [That] was a big part for quite a few of the boys."
In the book Warrior Nation, Watson outlined his rationale.
"I told him that if he couldn't show me he wanted to be at the club, then we would look at other options," said Watson. "He offered me nothing. When an athlete who is paid among the top three in the club says, 'I don't really care that much', I don't think time would have made any difference."
Lauitiiti accepts he wasn't playing well at the time, and had already had a few meetings with Watson, But this one was the last.
"He just told me to leave and I had to be escorted off the premises," said Lauitiiti. "One of the workers came and stood by the door while I grabbed my things. He said, 'I'll walk you to your car'."
It's an astonishing scenario, especially for a player who had played 115 games for the club. His team-mates were shocked.
"It was a decision that was rushed," said former halfback Stacey Jones. "Ali was made a scapegoat in a team that wasn't performing. He had a skill level far superior to anyone else for a big guy and could have had five or six more years for the Warriors. That was the most disappointing thing for everyone. But Ali went quietly. He could have made a few noises but that shows his character."
Lauitiiti has no regrets - "It was hard at the time but also a blessing in disguise. I needed to change" - but Watson probably does. The Warriors went into free-fall that season, as coach Daniel Anderson resigned and the team finished equal bottom of the ladder. They didn't really recover until 2007.
Lauitiiti is enjoying his second spell at the club, even if he is no longer a household name.
"I'm pretty much no one to the kids these days, it was so long ago," laughed Lauitiiti, who has been turning out for the Warriors' reserve grade side. "But from people my age and a bit older there is lots of 'welcome back' and 'it's good to have you back'. That's nice."
If he plays first-grade this year, he would be the oldest player in the competition, although Lauitiiti is biding his time.
"I need to earn my stripes. I'd like to play my part at some stage but just got to take it day by day."