The Canberra Raiders are over the cap and have to move BJ Leilua. It was a refrain heard around the Rugby League community. Last weekend it was reported by many, including the Canberra Times, as effectively a done deal. Driven out by the salary cap, Leilua would be another sacrifice the Raiders had to make for obeying the law that so many seemed to circumvent.
And then Raiders CEO Don Furner stepped in front of the story. “Nothing to do with us” he said, and that Leilua would be a Raiders at least until the end of his recently extended contract.
All was well for a brief moment. The wind over Lake Burley Griffin died down, warmly nestling in the reeds along the bank. And when Raiders fans had exhaled for the first time all weekend, coach Ricky Stuart made comments that raised eyebrows across a city that has one permanently raised. When asked if it was expected that Leilua would be in lime in 2018 Stuart said:
“Like every player, if they’ve got the right attitude and talent then I want them to be a part of my plans.”
Attitude? Talent? Say what? Wasn’t this a cap issue? Since when was Leilua’s effort and capability a problem?
Leilua has been a standout for the Raiders. While his 2017 wasn’t as dominant as his 2016, his marginal drop in performance was more about factors beyond his control (i.e the halves) and less to do with him. Yes he’s been prone to some wayward passes, but his risk taking is part of the package that results in more points than errors. So talent? Effectiveness? They are not why we’re here.
To be fair to Stuart it’s conceivable that Leilua’s attitude is a problem. It was under question a few times last year, notably when he visibly lost his temper with Blake Austin in round 16. It wouldn’t be the first time Leilua’s attitude had been an issue. He ended up at the Raiders in part because Newcastle was increasingly confounded with his unusual approach to fitness (i.e he didn’t have it). He was sacked by the Roosters in 2012 when he was found guilty of sending nude pictures of his ex-girlfriend. So it’s not unfair to wonder if Leilua’s attitude has been an issue.
The confusion was only compounded by Ricky’s statement in regards to Kurt Baptiste. The backup hooker was the only player nominated by Don Furner as likely to leave in order for the Raiders to be under the cap. But Stuart noted he expected him to be a Raider in 2018, despite the fact the Raiders frankly have no need for anyone else to play 9 that isn’t named Josh Hodgson. Baptiste’s attitude is rarely questioned.
So why the cap excuse? Where did that come from? Why not just say “we’re not sure about Leilua’s attitude”? Is the cap an issue? We can only speculate because Furner and Stuart don’t seem to agree on that.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Stuart has pushed someone out the door and used the cap as an excuse. In 2016 Paul Vaughan was moved on in similar fashion. Stuart often claimed this was a salary cap issue and he may have been right. But it was one he created by bringing on board Junior Paulo. He essentially chose Paulo over Paul, as is his right. But instead of owning that decision he said the cap forced his hand. Vaughan too was rumoured to have attitude issues – such rumours had been discussed more than once on the Fifth and Last podcast by people who were familiar with his time at the Raiders. Vaughan spent a good chunk of 2016 playing in NSW Cup, and only returned to first grade when now discarded backup forward Clay Priest injured himself late in the season. You probably remember how both Vaughan and Priest went in 2017. Similar stories can be told about Shaun Fensom and rumours that have swirled around Aidan Sezer, though in both cases one would suggest it was talent or performance rather than attitude that affected their time at the Raiders.
And so this is what makes this so unclear. Is there a cap issue? Is there an attitude issue? Is it a combination of both? Are we reading too much into a few comments at the end of a single article? If the cap isn’t an issue, and BJ’s attitude is, then why was he signed to an extension as recently as June?
This issue has seemingly created divisions within the Raiders organisation, as demonstrated by the confusion between Furner and Stuart as to who is staying and who is going. The Raiders had a hard enough time in 2017 getting along on the field. Their 2018 isn’t going to be any easier if the off-field organisation isn’t on the same page.
Does Ricky actually want BJ in lime green? Only time will tell, because it doesn’t seem Ricky will.