Dave Riccio of the Daily Telegraph reported today that BJ Leilua return from the near life-altering injury he suffered near three months ago was imminent. He has been cleared to return to training, and there is hope he’ll play again in 2019. There is good cause for happiness (and caution) for everyone involved. If can make a return in 2019, it will do the Raiders finals hopes no harm.
First off let’s start with the obvious. Leilua has only returned to contact training. He’s likely many weeks away from playing, and even if he’s fit again in 2019, there’s good cause to think the Raiders will be cautious with his return. The Raiders have managed in his absence, and given the stakes facing them, may not have the capacity to bring back a BJ who isn’t match fit. For his part, Leilua’s contract is also up after 2020, so the man himself will want to make sure he’s fully fit before returning. So we all should (including me) take a deep breath and maybe a big glass of Lagavulin (ooh fancy!) before we start expecting too much.
Caveats aside, let’s go ahead with some irresponsible speculation.
At his best Leilua brings a lot of things to the table. He’s a brilliant weapon close to the line and can break a tackle almost at will. He’s willing to do shitty yardage work, and he does it really well. He’s an improved defender in 2019. In short, he’s a weapon.
Unquestionably the person who will be most excited at Leilua’s return will be the Murtaugh to his Riggs, the Taggart to his Billy, the Butterman to his Angel, Jordan Rapana. Beyond just being good mates, these guys have a symbiotic relationships on the field, able to read the same gaps in defences, attack when no one else would and find bonus points the Raiders otherwise would miss out on. Rapana has had a rough year, and to go along with his injuries has had a hard time getting his hands on the ball in space with any consistency. He’s just returning to full health himself. He’ll relish the opportunity to work with the other half of Leipana.
It’s also going to make Aidan Sezer’s life a lot easier too. He’s been in tremendous form in the last few weeks, something that has pleased a lot of people (shouts to our man Sezer’s Palace). Leilua’s return would give him another weapon to hit with early ball, someone that can keep the defence honest to give Aidan more space.
Sidebar: Shouts to @steveathan2 on twitter for putting the idea to write this into the empty vessel that is my brain. My own excitement and neurosis did the rest.
But forget the early ball and another weapon, Sezer will be most pleased to have another protector next to him. Early in the season the Raiders improved edge defence was built on the physicality that John Bateman and BJ Leilua provided around both Sezer and Sam Williams. It meant that it wasn’t so easy when teams went at the smallest man on the ground to try and get a quick ruck. Michael Oldfield’s relative lack of menace in defence was a problem for Canberra against the Tigers last week, and having Leilua back there would be a boon.
The only loser I see is Bailey Simonsson. While much attention is focused on the high profile successful signatures of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and John Bateman, Simonsson has quietly been incredible value for money, allowing the Raiders to suffer a range of injuries to their centre-three-quarters (it felt hot writing that guys) without skipping a beat. He’s still not Nicoll-Klokstad under the high ball (who is beyond safe), but his yardage work and athletic finishing are second to none. You’d think Simonsson will either be the 18th man, or potentially get some burn of the bench as he did earlier in the year in a full strength Raiders side. He should be proud of what he’s achieved this year. Hopefully he’ll be a Raider for many years to come.
The only piece of caution I offer is to Leilua himself. BJ, if you read these pages, and I hope you have better taste than that, I want you to be 150 per cent sure before you come back. I know the Raiders are on the up and you’re keen to be involved. I know you’re doing everything right in rehab. I don’t need to tell you how serious your injury was. You need to know that no one will judge you if you choose your future over 2019.
But if Leilua is healthy, and is able to make an effective return to the Raiders in 2019, it’s an incredible piece of fortune for Canberra. Not many teams get to add a difference maker going into the finals. The Canberra Raiders just might be able to.