Leilua Leaving?

We barely had a moment to embrace the wonderful moment that was BJ Leilua’s flick pass to John Bateman before the soul-destroying real world came to sap beauty from your day. BJ Leilua, the instigator of that moment, has allegedly been told by the club they cannot afford to extend his salary beyond 2020 at its current rate. Leilua has allegedly been told if he could find that salary elsewhere, the Raiders wouldn’t stand in his way.

Before we get going, it’s important to note that this may just be rumours. It’s hardly the first time that rumours have swirled around Leilua’s future. The Titans had him locked away more than once. Here’s hoping this is a similar case and that BJ stays in green in 2020.

If you read these pages often, you can see that I have a lot of time for BJ Leilua, so the idea of him leaving has been gnawing away at the corner of my otherwise elated mind. What can I say; I want Joey in my life.

This is one of those situations where the most likely outcome may not align with our hopes. For the club there’s a range of factors at play. Firstly, it’s reported that Leilua is seeking an extension for a contract that still has a year to play. That in itself isn’t unusual, but tying up money over the future for a player that is mere weeks back from a near-career ending back injury is obviously a risk. Leilua will be nearing 29 when this contract ends, so the Raiders would have to be sure his body will hold up beyond that, and they would be guessing right now. The Raiders actually have depth behind Leilua for the first time ever – the performance of Bailey Simonsson this year provides an option to move Nic Cotric to right centre full-time.

The club’s cap position is also tight. The Raiders appear to be trying to find a way to squeeze both Leilua and his partner in crime Jordan Rapana under the cap along with the ‘not-going-anywhere’ Aidan Sezer. It’s musical chairs for three with what seems like two seats. Salary caps are jerks like that. Sezer has been resolute that he wants to compete for a starting position in 2020, and his performance lately suggests he has a point. Sezer and Leilua are already contracted for 2020, but either moving on would provide the necessary money to keep Rapana. If neither do it seems likely Rapana would walk out the door.

It’s hard to be angry with Leilua (or Rapana for that matter) for taking the money elsewhere over staying for less. They both have families. This is a game that gives them only a limited window to earn, and both are entering the age where they’re likely to get their last big pay day. Leiliua is surely acutely aware of the fragility of his NRL career after the season he has persevered through. No one begrudge him getting paid; if he has decided to leave (more on this later) then I just hope we send him out a winner.

It may simply be Leilua’s representation striking while the iron is hot – rightly trying to secure his future so his charger doesn’t have to go into 2020 with no contract beyond that season. Rumours like this are often about pointing out a player could leave to see what value there is outside his current team.

The rumoured choice of Canterbury is interesting. They’ve done an effective job of fixing the cap debacle left by Des Hasler. While they previously said they wouldn’t have the cap space to sign big money players until 2021, they have picked up Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Dylan Napa this season. Paul Kent and Paul Crawley said they were actually not close to the cap this season (so take that with a salt mine) so that may mean they’re actually in a position to offer Leilua the 600k a year beyond 2020 that Canberra simply can’t afford.

It would be a true shame if it came to pass. Leilua is a damaging ball-runner when fit, as good as any at his position in the competition. If you want him to hit a hole, he’ll destroy it. He does hard yardage runs, bowling over defenders and earning quick rucks like a third prop. He has a different way of processing the game and can identify opportunities that others can’t see. And in 2019 in particular, he’s formed a resplendent defensive edge with John Bateman and Aidan Sezer, a huge part of the dramatic turnaround of the Raiders defence.

This issue will likely go quite for the next few weeks as the Milk (shouts to the Betoota Advocate) ready for ‘on-field’ matters. But once the Raiders season is over, I’ll be keeping an eye out to see if this happens. I hope i’m wrong and that BJ is in lime green in 2020. But if he’s not, I’m not sure it could have been avoided.

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