Wigan captain Thomas Leuluai says he “lived like a nun for three weeks” in a bid to be fit for the Betfred Challenge Cup final.
The veteran half-back or hooker had been expected to sit out another six weeks with the knee injury he sustained in the Good Friday derby with St Helens but was named on the bench for the final against Huddersfield on Saturday and played a key role in their gripping 16-14 victory.
“I pushed it really hard and I’ve got to thank the physios, who worked hard on me,” Leuluai said.
“At the start I got told it was 12 weeks but I got back in six. I lived like a nun for three weeks – my diet was perfect.
“I went full whack. I said to my wife, ‘I need to do all I can to get in the team if there’s a chance’, so I’ve got to give special thanks to her.
“And the club were really good, they bought me a sauna blanket at home which I jumped in every night.
“We literally threw everything at it – altitude chambers and ice baths, I was getting massages and trained pretty much non stop for three weeks to try and get right.”
Leuluai says he surprised himself by coming back so quickly but ended up spending more time on the field than planned because of Wigan’s poor start and an injury towards the end of the game to stand-off Cade Cust.
“(Head coach) Matty (Peet) told me what he was looking for from me, I said ‘I reckon I can do that’,” he said.
“We rushed it but I got through training. Matty had the trust in me to do that and I’m so grateful that we got the win so I could repay that trust.
“I just wanted to give Matty an option. If we had had an injury, I would have to play anyway.
“At the start, he told me I’d do 25 minutes at the back end of the game so I was sitting back relaxing. I could tell the way we started was a bit nervous and we thought my experience could help the situation.
“I thought my job was done when Custy did his elbow so Lockers (assistant coach Sean O’Loughlin) pulled me over and said ‘you’re on’. I hadn’t trained in the halves.”
Leuluai replaced young hooker Brad O’Neill – who was deputizing for the suspended Sam Powell – just before half-time and helped galvanize the team but says he was happy to play second fiddle to 22-year-old Harry Smith.
“I thought Harry Smith was really good, how he didn’t win man of the match, I don’t know,” Leuluai said.
“I told him to take control of the game and I’ll just back him up. He showed great composure, made a line break, scored a try and set up the winner so his family should be very proud of him.
“He’s grown so much in the last six weeks since I’ve been out and I think he’ll grow from this.”
Leuluai, who turns 37 in June and is the oldest player in Super League, has been promised a role on Wigan’s coaching staff when he retires but says he has not yet made a decision when that will be.
“I don’t want to hang around too long,” he said. “Part of my role when I re-signed this year was to bring Harry on, so maybe my job’s done.
“I’m grateful to still be playing at my age and to win a Challenge Cup at my age.
“The last thing I want to do is go round too long but I’ll make a call on that. I’m not fussed, I’m prepared for retirement.
“It’s not like I’m chasing anything. If I can give something back to the group and they still want me to, then perhaps. If not, then I’ll go my own way.”
Meanwhile, Leuluai says Peet has exceeded his expectations by lifting a major trophy in his first season as head coach.
“He’s a good coach and he’ll be around for a long time,” he said. “He’s exceeded my expectation.
“I knew he was good but he’s been better than I thought. He’s a proud Wiganer too.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.