Brad Fittler signed Joey Leilua to the Sydney Roosters in 2009 and gave him a City Origin debut in 2012.
The NSW coach’s damning verdict is that Leilua hasn’t improved since.
Instead, he let his chance at representing the Blues in State of Origin slip and is still sabotaging his own career, with incidents like his coat-hanger hit on Dylan Edwards.
That off-the-ball cheap shot will give the Wests Tigers centre four weeks on the sidelines to consider his career path. Or we may just get more of the same.
“Joey was part of State of Origin [as 19th man] in 2012. I remember signing him in 2009 as a kid coming out of school,” former Blues captain Fittler said on Wide World of Sports’ Freddy and the Eighth.
“Within three years he was spotted as a future NSW player, so he would have only been 20 years old and really hasn’t gotten much better than that. The talent’s still there but the control isn’t.
“The hard thing is, so much of his game is that push and shove, and get the other centre off his game a little bit. But as you can see, if you can stand up to that, all you end up doing is frustrating him and that [the hit on Edwards] is just crazy. I reckon he’s lucky to get four weeks.”
Leilua played in a grand final in his Roosters rookie season, 2010’s loss to the Dragons. He was outstanding in that 2012 City-Country match, hence his NSW team nod.
Yet he has never played another game for an Australian representative team, let alone made the step up to Origin. For every powerhouse performance – in a career boasting 92 tries, 212 NRL games and two Dally M Centre of the Year gongs (2016 and 2018) – there has been an equal and opposite reaction.
Generally, that’s simply been a botched play here, a silly penalty there. Yet in the past, it has also been more serious.
Within a week in 2012, Leilua went from the brink of an Origin debut to a jail cell. He was arrested after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend; charges that were dismissed, but he was found guilty of distributing lewd images of the woman and given a 12-month good behaviour bond.
The Roosters briefly dropped him from the NRL side and he was sacked by the club at the end of the year, with two seasons still left on his deal. New coach Trent Robinson – who has gone on to win three premierships – took over a side that finished 13th and was off Leilua within weeks due to an unprofessional attitude.
Moving on to Newcastle under iconic coach Wayne Bennett, Leilua became a Samoan Test player before again falling out with his boss. Bennett’s Knights successor Rick Stone was fuming when Leilua returned from a Four Nations tournament significantly out of shape at 111kg, publicly blasting the centre in February of 2015.
Leilua and Stone fell out and when the centre indicated that he didn’t want to be at the club long-term, the Knights released him mid-season to Canberra. Raiders coach Ricky Stuart managed to make him a force again, in the deadly right edge ‘Leipana’ pairing with Jordan Rapana, but not without serious hurdles.
Leilua claimed that he was “off” Stuart during their run to last year’s grand final, when he was omitted for a Round 21 game against the Roosters. Despite indicating that he was ready to be selected after recovering from neck surgery, Stuart instead told him he wasn’t yet good enough to play, Leilua claims.
The writing was on the wall for Leilua straight after a grand final loss to the Roosters, in which he blew a try with a forward pass to Rapana. Word was that Canberra were willing to part ways with their $650,000 per season maverick a year before his contract ended and they signed Curtis Scott from Melbourne the next month.
It was all over when Leilua again turned up for pre-season overweight this year, following his wedding. Stuart banished him to train with the reserve-graders and soon after Leilua was released to Wests Tigers, going from the grand finalists to a club that hasn’t made the finals since 2011.
Noted disciplinarian Michael Maguire, a premiership-winning coach at South Sydney, is now scratching his head over how to handle Leilua after the Edwards incident.
Maguire is trying to instil toughness and consistency at the under-performing Tigers and Leilua’s brain-snap was at extreme odds with his regime, to the extent that commentator Warren Smith branded him “the worst signing by any club in the NRL era” and called for his contract to be torn up.
“Ricky got the best out of him the last couple of years, had his discipline in check, but when the pressure’s really on and the niggle’s on, you just don’t know what you’re going to get,” Immortal Andrew Johns said on Freddy and the Eighth.
“At his best, there’s no better, probably, strike centre in the game. But then you get this rubbish. It’s just ridiculous.
“He’s letting himself down, he’s letting his teammates down. You just can’t do that.”
Fittler said Leilua’s penchant for brain-snaps had “absolutely” held back his career.
“What a shame. He’s been to the Roosters, went to Newcastle then down to Canberra and now it’s his fourth club at the Tigers,” Fittler said.
“It’s sort of shown there’s a bit of form each way and he’s moving on because of those reasons, that maybe players or the coaches just can’t quite get control or get the best out of Joey.
“Anyway, he’s got four weeks to think about it and hopefully he comes back [better] because there’s a lot of potential there, still.”
Leilua decks Edwards with coat hanger
Leilua, still just 28, is on a three-year contract at Wests Tigers. His latest infraction has heightened the odds that he will maintain his perfect record of not completing the deal.
Johns said that he would hesitate to sign Leilua. He said that Stuart, who had him at Canberra for five seasons, had come closest to solving the riddle of the enigmatic star.
“Depends what the price was but [he] can be a liability,” Johns said.
“If you got the best out of him … the person to speak to would be Ricky Stuart. Whether he carried a stick or he cuddled him, I don’t know how they managed him, but for a couple of years Ricky Stuart got the best out of him, so he’s probably the best one to ask.”
Former NSW captain Paul Gallen also said this week that Leilua had sabotaged his claims to higher honours with his wayward temperament.
“He’s big, fast, strong, agile. He’s got all the talent in the world,” Gallen wrote in his Wide World of Sports column.
“But we’re yet to see that talent fulfilled. That’s what frustrates people about Joey.
“He’s constantly involved in brain explosions and doing silly things on the field. This was just the latest and probably won’t be the last.
“This is a player who was once spoken about regularly as a possible NSW Origin centre. I think those days are gone now for Joey.
Tigers should have stopped Leilua: Gus
“As a younger bloke, he certainly would have been considered due to his ability. That ability was there for everyone to see. But to be at Origin level, you’ve got to be consistent; week-in, week-out, year-in, year-out.
“Unfortunately for Joey, that’s not his strong suit. He’ll win the Tigers a few games on his own this year, he’s a terrific player when he has his head on. But right now, he’s going to be out for four weeks.
“That’s Joey and that’s a big part of the reason why the ship’s sailed on representative football. All those incidents add up over the years. It’s not even a matter of reputation; it’s just a fact with Joey that he’s an inconsistent player.
“I don’t think that’s being too harsh on him. He can win you a game, and he can cost you one.”