Joey Leilua the “worst signing by any club in the NRL era”? Hmm, he may well be

On Saturday night, Joey Leilua gave away a crucial penalty that led to a field goal by Penrith’s Nathan Cleary.

The one-pointer broke a deadlock in the last ten minutes of the game between the Tigers and Panthers, in what was an emotional, spiteful and entertaining battle for bragging rights in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Then with under two minutes to go in the game, Leilua collected Penrith fullback Dylan Edwards around the neck/head – off the ball – in a cheap, careless and irresponsible act, and was subsequently sent to the sin bin.

Both penalties were stupid and costly, which have sadly become the hallmark of the centre’s career.

Joey Leilua brain farts: a rugby league tradition like no other.

Fox Sports commentator Warren Smith took to Twitter, and savaged Leilua. He called for a six-week suspension, and for the Tigers to tear up his contract. Yet he saved his hottest take for last, when he suggested that Leilua was the “worst signing by any club in the NRL era”.

Steaming molten chillis in hell! That’s a spicy meatball!

Needless to point out, that’s a pretty big statement from the man they call ‘Wazza’, but Twitter has never been known for its level-headed, rational opinions.

The NRL era is 23 seasons, including this one, and there’s undoubtedly been a lot of questionable signings in that time period. In the last few seasons alone, fans could easily rattle off the following list of players as candidates for bad signings: Anthony Milford, Ben Hunt, Ash Taylor, Dylan Napa, Josh Reynolds and Corey Norman. I’m sure there’s plenty more to add to that list too.

Reaching back a little longer, ex-Manly trio Anthony Watmough, Glenn Stewart and Kieran Foran were considered expensive and dud contracts almost as soon as they left the Sea Eagles.

Going even further back, for years after Souths were admitted back into the competition, they were renowned for signing players to big contracts – players that were well past their prime, or failed to fire at the Bunnies.

There’s also a certain coach currently up in Brisbane that could make a very strong case for the claim of “worst signing by any club in the NRL era”.

The point being, Wazza was probably a little harsh on Leilua.

Here’s the thing though: even in the heat of the moment, as hyperbolic as Smith’s tweet seemed, I have to admit to nodding along when I read it.

The primary reason, to be honest, is because there’s an inherent bias in agreeing with something you have previously stated yourself.

When the Tigers recruited Leilua in the off-season, the first person I messaged was my brother-in-law (a rabid Tigers fan), teasing him that Leilua was a terrible signing. So of course I’ll agree with someone stating essentially the same thing… if not with a little more hot sauce on it.

Joseph Leilua

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

My reasoning is simple: Leilua is certified brain fart waiting to happen. And always has been.

At 28 years of age, he’s still making the same dumb mistakes he was when he was 18. He unfortunately hasn’t matured yet, and plays too much with his heart, not his head.

You can’t trust Leilua, and you can’t win with him if he’s an integral part of your team.

A Canberra premiership last season certainly would have complicated Leilua’s legacy. For starters, you simply could not write the previous paragraph, because it would cease to be true. Plus, it was Leilua’s brilliance that helped the Raiders beat the Storm in last year’s finals, when his flick pass to John Bateman set up the match-winning try.

More than balancing that out though, in the grand final, two mental Leilua errors cost the Raiders dearly. He bombed a try by not passing the ball to an open Jordan Rapana, and his lazy defence led to the crucial Roosters try.

Yet that’s the tease with Leilua – he’s just talented enough to make you think his rewards could be worth the risks.

However, a rational risk assessment of what Leilua brings to the table is where a well run club says “thanks, but no thanks”.

Signing a player with ten seasons worth of evidence that he commits consistent mental errors – and who also fell out of favour with management at all three of his previous clubs – and somehow believing he’ll be better at your club is certainly a statement.

Joseph Leilua

(Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

It’s either supreme confidence in your coach and your culture, or merely crazy to expect those errors to magically disappear. Given the Tigers’ track record, you’d have to lean towards the latter over the former.

Perhaps Wests should make Albert Einstein their CEO? At least he knew the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

That’s the main difference between, say, signing Ben Hunt and signing Joey Leilua. One has under-performed against expectations, while the other has been good at times, but when he’s damagingly bad, he’s exactly the player many teams, fans and experts had predicted. Oh, and he will now also be suspended for six weeks.

While the amount of money the player is getting paid should also come into the conversation, it’s an interesting debate to decide which is truly the worst signing.

The harsh reality is that the Tigers have no one but themselves to blame for not knowing they were signing a player who may lose you more games than he wins. That’s why there was very little sympathy for the Tigers on Saturday night, as Leilua simply did what he always does: gave away dumb penalties, and cost his team victory.

Knowing that, I can understand where Smith was coming from in calling Leilua’s signing the worst in the NRL era.

I don’t think it’s true, but it’s certainly not as hot a take as it may have first appeared.

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