Leilani Latu relishes NRL debut for the Penrith Panthers

Premiership win: Leilani Latu and Penrith Panthers NSW Cup coach Garth Brennan celebrate the 2014 grand final win. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
Premiership win: Leilani Latu and Penrith Panthers NSW Cup coach Garth Brennan celebrate the 2014 grand final win. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

There was howling excitement, a lot of screaming and even a few tears after Leilani Latu heard he would finally be making his NRL debut. 

The term ‘finally’ might seem a bit excessive for a 22-year-old, but the moment could have easily come a lot sooner.  

A Canterbury-Bankstown junior, Latu played under-20s for the Bulldogs before joining the Panthers in 2014.

The NRL got its first taste of the 190 centimetre, 120 kilo wrecking ball when he came off the bench in the Penrith Panthers’ round 21 loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs. 

Although he was not named in the original line up Latu learned he would be making his debut during the week.

The news stirred up a mixture of emotions as he prepared for a day he feared might never come. 

‘‘It was a long time coming for me,’’ he said. 

‘‘I had my family and my fiancee’s family there. They’ve been with me through thick and thin, all the ups and downs in my journey, right through to my debut game.’’

The ups and downs before making his debut in the top grade include winning a NSW Cup with the Panthers last year, as well as a shoulder reconstruction, a broken foot and operations to remove cartilage from his knee. 

Early days: Leilani Latu playing for the NSW under-18s in 2011. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Early days: Leilani Latu playing for the NSW under-18s in 2011. Picture: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

While playing NRL was on Latu’s ‘‘To do list’’ for 2015, his main goal was to make it through a season unscathed. 

‘‘I’ve been riddled with a lot of injuries over my career, through under-20s and up to NSW Cup, so that was the first goal, just to get through each week without getting injured and if I was to play grade, that was a bonus,’’ he said. 

Latu described making his debut as a surreal feeling, and enjoyed the test of playing against the defending premiers. 

Latu said he learned the biggest adjustment from NSW Cup to the NRL is the speed of the game. 

‘‘It was a lot quicker; physical toughness and the contact was exactly the same as NSW Cup. 

‘‘The speed was the game-changer, I had to exert my energy, how to breathe properly, how to pace myself.’’

 While Latu may have had a long wait for his debut, he has only had to wait a week for his second opportunity, retaining his spot for Saturday’s clash with Parramatta in Darwin. 

Latu is grateful for the opportunity the opportunity the Panthers coaching staff have given him and feels blessed to be able to call himself an NRL player. 

This story "It's been a long time coming," -Leilani Latu first appeared on Penrith City Gazette.