I am going to miss the audacity of BJ Leilua.
BJ doesn’t do things the way most players would. He sees things differently; the cracks and crevices of the game exist as invitations to him. Where most people see a blind side and a last tackle as the time to get the ball to the half, BJ saw it as a time to shine. He was a one man army taking on the creeping staidness of attack, ready to try the thing that every kid would be trying in their backyards.
His audacity wasn’t just in the risks he took. It permeated every part of him. He was ferocious. He didn’t run the ball to be tackled. He burst through tackles, knocking bigger men to the ground, almost surprised whenever his body hit the turf. Scrambling to his feet he’d be desperate to get the ball in his hands again, because he could do anything.
Most of the time it came off. Who else could pick up a loose ball, get turned in a tackle, and execute a behind the back pass that would make Steph Curry proud, all while facing the wrong way and running backwards? BJ did. It wasn’t just that most players couldn’t execute that play, it’s that they wouldn’t have even seen it as possible.
BJ saw it as possible.
It was BJ who took a firework in the eye, and risked his whole career, and the likely finals success of his team to flick a pass back inside to John Bateman. That one other players could do, but when you see the three Storm defenders completely upended by it, you understand no one else saw it coming. They didn’t think anyone would have the audacity to try it, in that game; at that moment.
When he turned the 2016 season into his personal plaything we remembered the connection with Jordan Rapana, but their brilliance was in the shared understanding of the game; symbiosis on a football field. It propelled him to one of the great seasons by a modern centre. He took a position that is an afterthought in modern attacks and made it a critical part of the Raiders’ success.
Sometimes his brilliant best obscured his toughness, and the “everyday” things he did at an elite level. It’s odd to say about someone who played one position, but his in-game flexibility has been a huge asset to the Raiders. BJ was a centre first, but so often he took the hard carries of a middle forward, often with more success. His defence brought the physicality of a middle forward to the edge. When he was placed next to the more predictable Aidan Sezer in 2019, his positional defence improved so markedly that the Raiders’ right side became one of the more impenetrable edges in the league.
His audacity also made every error the more maddening. When he would take the blind on the last and fail, the crowd, and his teammates, would look at him like a child that had flung a dirty nappy across the room. It could be infuriating when he didn’t see the straightforward play. He could see holes where they didn’t exist, but he couldn’t see Rapana standing in space with no one on him?
As much as any player that has pulled on the lime green since 1994, I wanted BJ to leave a winner. To leave a hero to Canberra. To get the universal acclaim from the NRL community I thought he deserved.
In the end the downside was too much for the club to bear. It’s a big risk for Canberra. The Raiders already struggled to score in 2019 – and as we pointed out ad nauseum, their attacking style relied on the talent of individuals to beat their matchup rather than any particular structure or organisation. Leilua has the talent to do that, as did Rapana, and Canberra has let them both walk out the door. It’s not insurmountable, but there’s a real need to improve their attacking structures now they may not have the talent to overwhelm sides. In the end they decided Leilua’s ability to change the game was that much trouble they’d happily pay the majority of his 2020 wage for him to not be at the club. I trust they know more than we do.
Sidebar: My assumption is that the spare 200-300k that will be found by Leilua moving on will largely be gobbled up in the extensions for Jack, John and maybe Nic.
Players like BJ Leilua aren’t always best understood by their success, but rather by how they extend the idea of what is possible. Sometimes the genius isn’t the final product, but rather the showing of the way to another possibility. Steve Nash and the “7 Seconds or Less” Suns showed basketball fans that you didn’t need the low block. They never won the league. Johan Cruyff and the Dutch soccer teams of the 1970s created “Total Football” and never won the World Cup. The 2001 Paramatta Eels changed the nature of Rugby League physiques for ever and got handled in the grand final by the Knights. Bill Simmons calls this “critically acclaimed.”
I have no doubt BJ’s time in Canberra will remain critically acclaimed, celebrated by those that recognised his brilliance wasn’t constrained by convention. BJ was brilliant. Just a sniff of an idea, that’s all he ever needed. He could turn nothing into something into anything is possible.
And I’ll miss that the most.