Before this season started (in fact, before last season ended) we made the case in these pages that the role of Sia Soliola in 2021 would be as much off the field as on.
The travails of COVID, and the impact of the coward Peter V’Landys giving money hand over fist back to Channel 9 meant that the salary cap, and the associated football department spending cap, both had to come down. V’Landys’ miscalculation meant teams had to be more circumspect if how they supported and coached their teams. Players like Sia (and also Sam Williams) would be worth their weight in gold (probably more in Sam’s case) in their ability to guide and nurture the younger players that may be getting less support because of the cuts.
This importance only increased with some noteworthy off-field incidents over summer. At the time we acknowledged that outsiders may have questions about the Raiders culture, but recognised the importance of Coach Stuart’s efforts, as well as the role of established leaders like Soliola in making sure clear norms of behaviour are established for the generational divide which resulted from the ongoing future-proofing of the squad.
From an outsiders perspective he’s done a bit there. Earlier this year we noted the three things we saw as a critical part of a functioning club culture; connection to the past, service to the community, and upholding high standards and responding when players step outside the lines. Sia has nailed all three. He’s been at the club since 2015, (only Croker, Wighton and Papalii and Sam Williams have been in green longer). He was a peer of many greats of Raiders past, including Campese, Croker (the other one), Wiki, Schifcofske, Woolford, Mogg and Tongue. And to utter the words ‘scandal’ and Sia in the same sentence is only ever done in the spirit of laughing at the idea. His model citizenship was never more on display by the revelation recently that he had shaved his head as part of an effort to save money for the Domestic Violence Crisis Service. He’s working with Men of League to raise money for Mose Masoe, an ex-teammate who suffered a spinal injury. This is in addition to the already noted work he does to support local homelessness services in the Canberra region. (And if you’re bit of a social policy type, you’ll often hear Sia talk about the intersectionality of these issues. Be still my nerdy heart). In addition to this he always finds time to take photos, chat or send little videos to fans, which is frankly a stunning moment for anyone who received one.
*Shameless tangent warning*
Just before the Warriors game, my wife delivered our second baby. It was exciting stuff for both of us. To add a bit more of a glow to a positively iridescent day, Tim Gore (of the esteemed 3rd most popular Raiders podcast Raiders Review with Blake and the Pork and glorious author AJ Mithen organised for a Raider to send us a little note congratulating us on the newcomer. Who delivered? Sia of course.
This kind of stuff is another piece of himself that Sia is willing to give. He’s getting ready to play a professional football game, and he takes time out to say some kind words to someone he may never meet. I’m not ashamed to say this was a big deal to me. So thanks to AJ and Tim for organising. And thanks to Sia. You may never meet me or my kids but you’ll forever be Uncle Sia in this house.
*Ok shameless tangent over.*
Some thought this might be the greater extent of Soliola’s contribution in 2021. A ‘greybeard’; able to provide guidance and direction to younger players, liaising with the community to build support, while mostly watching from the sidelines. Almost like the Raiders own community connections officer. But what has been a wonderful revelation so far this season is how important he has been for the Raiders success.
Against the Tigers he was critical part in providing the increased penetration through the middle that turned the game in Canberra favour through the middle rotations. He followed his up in round two with critical metres with the bench mob as well as being a prime weapon at the line (he nearly scored twice of Hodgon’s shoulder). Then in round three he punched 50 plus minutes, 130 plus metres, 27 tackles, a line break and a try, all while surviving fifty plus minutes of the “no-rest” NRL at age 34. He played less minutes in round four (27) but still managed to put away 20 tackles, some critical runs, and remained an underrated weapon close to the line.
So far he’s averaging just under 100 metres a game and 90 percent tackling efficiency. He has looked every bit as comfortable as he has in any other year. He’s been a critical part of the Raiders bench rotation, outshining emerging talents and helping instil an ethic of competition and earning opportunities in the top grade. He’s been a critical weapon in the redzone, being utilised by both Josh Hodgson and George Williams to test tiring defences around the goal line.
Sia’s contract is up at the end of the year and he’s already said he’ll play as long as the game lets him. While many may have thought the changing nature of the game might pass him buy, it’s possible that the fact he’s only a recent transplant from the backrow (and occasionally filling in during games at centre) means he still has the agility and fitness to match it with the increased tempo.
Only time will tell if that’s the case. But for now let’s celebrate the fact that even at the back end of his career Sia Soliola is still getting it done, as well as being a stalwart of the Canberra community.
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