How Kiwis debutant Leota was almost a Blue
New Zealand Test debutant Moses Leota has revealed how he came close to NSW State of Origin selection before a Ronaldo Mulitalo-like eligibility issue dashed that representative dream.
Leota is one of four players named to debut for the Kiwis by coach Michael Maguire on Wednesday, set to come come off the bench against Tonga in Auckland on Saturday.
But for most of his career, the Penrith prop believed he was eligible to pull on a Blues jersey.
Born in Auckland, Leota moved to Australia to live with his cousins after a holiday turned into a permanent stay.
Until last year he firmly believed he had arrived at age 12, making him eligible to play for NSW.
Since making his NRL debut in 2016 Leota has matured into one the game's premier props, picked in NSW emerging blues camps and backed for selection by the likes of Andrew Johns.
The forward was even noted by the NRL's own website as a genuine contender for the NSW Origin side in 2020.
That chance almost came in Origin III last year when Leota was seriously considered for selection before a last-minute NSW Rugby League records check showed he had moved to Australia at age 13.
Under the NRL's eligibility rules, Origin players must either have lived in NSW or Queensland before their 13th birthday.
"It was a kick in the guts," Leota told AAP.
"I thought I came over when I was 12. I was telling everyone I came over when I was 12.
"So they had to backdate it and check. They called my first school when I came to Australia and see what year I came.
"And it turned out to be wrong, I came over when I was 13."
Leota's story is similar to that of Ronaldo Mulitalo, who was named as Queensland's 19th man for Origin II last year before being drafted in late.
In that case the eligibility check was completed only 24 hours before the game and he was unable to prove he had arrived in Queensland before his 13th birthday.
NSW make a point to check eligibility of all players once they enter selection discussions to avoid such dramas, including former Junior Kiwi Siosifa Talakai when he hit form earlier this year.
"When it happened to Ronaldo, I was just thinking it sucks for him," Leota said.
"At the time I didn't know I was in the same boat."
Fittingly Ronaldo and Leota will now debut for New Zealand together, with Leota taking the silver lining of representing his Kiwi family.
"I thought I was going to be eligible to play for the Blues and I was just going to stick to that for my career," Leota said.
"But most of my family is back there and they haven't seen me play in a while because of COVID.
"Hopefully I get the chance to hit the field and do them proud."
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