Leilua Itching For Origin Debut
Rampaging Raiders centre Joey Leilua doesn't believe his adventurous style is holding him back from Origin selection, insisting that if it wasn't working Canberra coach Ricky Stuart would have dropped him a long time ago.
Leilua brought up his 150th game in the NRL in last weekend's big win over the Titans where he was in a typically destructive mood, busting six tackles, scoring a try, setting up two more and delivering two line-break assists.
His willingness to go looking for the football at any point on the field makes him next to impossible to contain for 80 minutes yet he has been unable to break into a Blues team that has only once been able to score more than 20 points in their past 12 interstate clashes.
Named 19th man for New South Wales in 2012, Stuart denied a request from Blues coach Laurie Daley for Leilua to join the NSW Origin camp as a development player last year – "He's past that" – and is adamant that he is the best right centre at Daley's disposal a month out from the start of the 2017 Series.
Blake Ferguson, Josh Dugan and Jarryd Hayne have all been discussed as options for Game One and while Stuart didn't want to enter into debate about Origin selections, he left no doubt as to where he thinks Leilua sits in the pecking order.
"That's not a question for me. That's for other people but I'm very happy with what he's doing for us," Stuart said when asked whether Leilua's style would transfer to the Origin arena.
"I think he's the best right centre in the game.
"I never, ever saw [signing Leilua] as a gamble. I've known Joey for a long time and it's just a matter of knowing how to deal with certain individuals.
"I deal with every individual differently at our club and we're all mates and Joey is in wonderful form, probably career-best form to be quite honest."
The knock on Leilua in the past is that his discipline on the field can leave a team vulnerable, especially in the high-pressure environment of Origin.
But despite his willingness to offload at every opportunity – and Stuart's encouragement of him to do so – the numbers show a player who has come to understand his game so well that handling errors are becoming much less of an issue.
In 2015 when he made a mid-season switch from the Knights to the Raiders Leilua made 21 errors in 19 games whereas last year he made just 13 errors in 25 games.
More than ever the Leilua risk appears worth the reward and the 25-year-old who now has a five-month-old son named Leonidas is ready for the next step.
"I would love to play rep footy for New South Wales and the Kangaroos," Leilua told NRL.com.
"It's a rep side and I think the best players should play and if I'm not the best player at the time then I shouldn't be playing.
"I don't worry about what people think about my game, it's all about the team. I play for the Raiders and they're the ones that pay me and so if they don't like my footy then they would have kicked me out.
"But I guess I'm playing good footy and I just stick to my game plan and help the boys out every week."
Released by the Knights in June 2015 when he announced that he would be exercising a clause in his contract allowing him to leave at the end of the season, Leilua credits the faith Stuart has shown in him the past two seasons for being able to reach the heights that saw him named the Dally M Centre of the Year in 2016.
"He's been great, not just for me but for the whole squad," said Leilua, who played for City Origin in 2012 and has played eight Tests for Samoa.
"He's not just a coach, he's a mentor for the boys. He cares about his players and he's cared a lot for me and done a lot with me in the pre-season.
"He gives you a boost as a player and the way I play is I like to get offloads away and I play what's in front.
"To see him jump on board with me and not try and stop me by saying not to push the pass or anything like that... There are times when you need to hold it but he's given me the licence to do it and it gives me the belief that I can do the passes that I can."
Admitting that reaching 150 games in the NRL seemed unlikely when he was sacked by the Roosters for a perceived poor attitude to training, Leilua said that having his son with partner Tiana in November has changed his outlook for the better.
"When I got in trouble at the Roosters but I just persevered and moved on with my life and knew that I could be the player that I am today," Leilua said.
"I've got a little one now, he's five months and he keeps me grounded.
"I love being a dad, it's the best thing ever and you can tell by all the other boys in our team that are fathers, they bring so much joy and to see my little one every day after work, there's nothing better."
This article first appeared on NRL.com