Devastated Joey Leilua after losing the 2019 NRL grand final.
Devastated Joey Leilua after losing the 2019 NRL grand final.

Tigers strap in for wild ride with Leilua

You are either a Joey Leilua person or not, and once you decide to go one way there is little chance of ever going the other because the two paths rarely meet.

The snappy words people use about Leilua are "enigmatic", or "unpredictable", or if they are not Joey Leilua people they use words like "erratic", or "unreliable", or, and this is the big one, "lazy".

He is one of those players who by his very nature cannot help but inspire hyperbole. Maybe it's because of the variance in how he plays - pundits and fans see what they want to see and overlook the things they don't, because the full Leilua experience has it all.

 

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His believers point to his two Dally M centre of the year awards and his virtuoso 2016 season. His critics bring up his shaky defensive decisions, and his tendency to lose control when the red mists descend.

What of the flick pass to John Bateman against Melbourne, the believers cry? What of the blown chance and the forward pass to Jordan Rapana in the grand final, the critics shoot back?

 

Devastated Joey Leilua after losing the 2019 NRL grand final.
Devastated Joey Leilua after losing the 2019 NRL grand final.

 

Remember his barnstorming, two-try effort against Brisbane? Remember the eight-point try he gave away against Manly? That's just from this year, and as far back as you go, neither party will ever run out of ammunition.

That makes the question around Leilua a simple one - are you willing to take the bad to wait for the good? Which washes out the other?

Are you willing to cop an occasional defensive blunder for the insane flick pass that delivers a try from nowhere? Can you make peace with an error in order to wait for the blindside rush out of nowhere that leads to a try?

Over the last four years, when Joey Leilua has been at his best there has not been a better centre in all of rugby league. Latrell Mitchell might have more tries, but he does not stay involved in the same way. Jarrod Croker might be more prolific, but he can't break a game open like Leilua does. Joseph Manu is lighter on his feet, but he does not have the raw power, or the work rate.

That work rate is why the criticism of Leilua being lazy in matches does not strike the mark. Not once in Leilua's four and change years with Canberra has he ever averaged less than 10 runs in a match, even in 2019 when he played just 12 games and was never really fully fit.

He is both strike weapon and blunt-force workhorse from his own end - many modern centres are either one or the other. Even on his bad days, when he races in defensively like a crazy man, or when his temper has gotten the better of him and he's facing a suspension, Leilua never stops looking for carries.

If Leilua did the things he did at Canberra at another club, he would have played for New South Wales and Australia, but some players have to do more than others to make representative football. It's likely he wouldn't have lasted long, because at that level one bad game can mean exile - just ask Latrell Mitchell - and when Leilua runs onto a field all you can do is toss a coin and hold your breath.

In landing Leilua, the Tigers have made their choice on Leilua, and it looks to be a good one from their perspective. Nobody would doubt the Tigers' commitment last season - they fought and fought hard for every inch they ever got, but one of the reasons they fell short of ending the longest finals drought in NRL history was a lack of points, which came from a lack of creativity and firepower.

 

Joey Leilua is one of the most enigmatic players in the NRL.
Joey Leilua is one of the most enigmatic players in the NRL.

 

The Tigers, once the Tim Sheens attacking machine who believed the only way to stop a team from scoring points was to score more themselves, have come full circle. They have found a toughness they used to lack, but in doing so their blades have lost their edge. Joey Leilua is a blade with the sharpest edge around, but he cuts both ways.

Leilua can provide exactly what the Tigers need, especially if he's paired on an edge with his brother Luciano, who joins from St George Illawarra, and the ageless Benji Marshall. Or perhaps he'll be over with Luke Brooks, who has become one of the most underrated players in the competition in recent years. Leilua has spent his years with Canberra as a right centre, but before that he played almost exclusively on the left.

 

Joey’s brother Luciano Leilua is also at the Tigers. Picture: Toby Zerna
Joey’s brother Luciano Leilua is also at the Tigers. Picture: Toby Zerna

 

He can be whatever Michael Maguire wants him to be, and if Canberra are kicking in as much money as some reports suggest, it's a very nice bit of business by the joint venture.

The Tigers will have to convert to the church of Leilua if they want to get the best out of him, and if all goes well it could be a fine match. Leilua started so early it's easy to forget he is still only 28. He has 10 seasons of first grade under his belt, and it is likely he is what he is at this point. The creases in his game are there to stay, even under a taskmaster such as Maguire.

But, because this is Joey Leilua, the Tigers must brace themselves to take the good with the bad, because when the good is good it's just so, so good. Leilua will test the faith and win them back, he will baffle and bedazzle, he will go for it all as much as he possibly can, and sometimes he'll do it too much.

Go back and watch Leilua's flick pass to Jordan Rapana from Round 26 of 2016 - against the Tigers funnily enough. When Leilua collects the loose ball, he has Elliott Whitehead on his inside and Whitehead has nothing but open space in front of him. It's an easy play, and one Leilua can easily make.

 

Raiders Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana embrace after their grand final loss.
Raiders Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana embrace after their grand final loss.

 

Leilua doesn't even look on his inside. He throws an incredible, round the corner ball to Jordan Rapana. There has never been a pass quite like it, before or since. Rapana cruises the 25 metres to the line, laughing with the whip in the air before he even puts it down.

Rapana puts it down to celebrate with his teammate, because they are Leipana and that's what they do. As Leilua jogs up he does not look like a man who just made the impossible come to life. He just shrugs. Even he doesn't know how or why he does things the way he does them.

The Tigers have bought the ticket on Joey Leilua's wild ride and there's nothing else quite like it.



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