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Hunger games and moving pains: How Leota rose into Blues contention

Built like a single storey block of flats, Moses Leota's next move could well be into NSW Origin camp thanks to his rarely rivalled impact off Penrith's bench this season.

But across the Tasman, most every career milestone he passes brings on a flood of emotions for the parents who sent their 12-year-old son to Sydney to chase a better life.

"I lived in a caravan out the back of my uncle's place while I was coming up, I think that's been written a bit," Leota says.

"I stayed there for a year or so and then I moved out with my missus to a granny flat for another year or so, then to another granny flat.

"Then we moved to South Penrith and we've actually recently bought a house at Jordan Springs.

 
 
 
 
 
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Had a blast in NZ Getting the Win with my panther brothers💪🏽 even more special getting too see my family for the week ❤️ thank you lord 🙏🏾

A post shared by Moses Leota (@mosesleota) on

"Coming from what I did to own a house now, it was a goal for sure. Not many people in my family have ever got to do that.  

"I rang Mum the other day actually, showing her around the new house on FaceTime. And she was almost in tears.

"She was pretty emotional, telling me, 'you've made it.' She was so proud. She said if she was to die today she would be happy because she saw what I've achieved. That hit me in the feels."

Leota hit the internet with warm and fuzzies two years ago when he returned to his family home with a set of keys.

His mother lost it when he told her the new car in her Auckland driveway were hers, a four-wheel thank you for all the sacrifices made raising 12 kids.

The payoff is plain to see whenever Leota is thrown into the fray by Ivan Cleary, his average 33 minutes of game time this year among the most productive from a big man in 2020.

His footwork and speed came to the fore when Penrith downed the Roosters in week one of the playoffs, and loom large again for the Rabbitohs in Saturday's grand final qualifier.

So too Blues coach Brad Fittler, who sees tremendous upside in Leota's 3.2 metres per minute of game time and the fact around 40% of them come post-contact.

Likewise, the fact three-quarters of his 79 NRL games have come off the bench, with Fittler reminded of champion enforcer David "Cement" Gillespie in the value of impact via your interchange.

"[Leota] just absolutely charges, and he's used to being a bench player," Fittler said on Channel Nine.

Then there were four …

"I remember David Gillespie used to get picked off the bench.

"He used to come off the bench sometimes for Manly. He was the first pick by Gus all the time because he knew he would get impact.

"He knew how to handle being on the bench and was great around the team.

"Sometimes being an impact player doesn't always hurt."

David Gillespie on the run for Canterbury at Belmore in 1986.
David Gillespie on the run for Canterbury at Belmore in 1986. ©NRL Photos

At 108 kilos, defensive lines have been copping Leota's full force for a while now.

But only after overhauling an appetite that would mean he'd last "five minutes - one carry, one tackle, then I was gassed and I was off soon after" in his first game for Penrith's under 20s.

Breakfasts of meat pies, chocolate milk and energy drinks were Leota's norm as he laid bricks and washed cars coming through the grades.

"I wasn't always this big! When I was in New Zealand I was really skinny and I'd be playing rugby union on the wing," Leota laughs.

Preparing the Panthers

"I played at fullback too, I was an outside back growing up.

"We were a poor family growing up. We always had food, but you had to fight for it!

"That kind of thing drove me to make first grade. To help my mum out. Me and my older brother back in the day, we would hide food from each other. Because we knew if you waited and came back, there would be nothing left.

Panthers prop Moses Leota.
Panthers prop Moses Leota. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

"Then when I got to Australia to live with my cousins, it was just so different.

"It was like I'd never eaten before and I put on weight and I ended up being a chubby kid!"

These days the 25-year-old is driven by his family at home – partner Stella Funaki and daughters Aiva (three) and Aria (two) – and away – with a veritable clan of Leotas supporting his rise back in Auckland.

The same close ties were always in mind right throughout his teenage years, understandably pulling Leota back to New Zealand when doubts crept in.

"Through the day I would be happy and then at night I'd be lying in bed and I'd get homesick," he says.

"I wouldn't show it during the day. But at night I'd be crying and calling home to my mum, telling her 'I want to come home'.

"I never had any money to get a plane ticket so it never got that far, I just eventually got used to it.

"It's a better life for me over here and that's what kept me going the whole way through."