Rugby League

NRL: Sia Soliola expecting to lead from front to pave way for Elliott Whitehead

He's Canberra's reigning player of the year, but Sia Soliola says he will have no qualms giving up his starting back-row spot to make way for gun recruit Elliott Whitehead this season.

Soliola was a rock on the right edge in his debut year for Canberra but said the English international and Queensland Origin star Josh Papalii had "earned the right to be there".

Sia Soliola has no qualms moving to prop to accommodate new recruit Elliott Whitehead.
Sia Soliola has no qualms moving to prop to accommodate new recruit Elliott Whitehead. Photo: Melissa Adams

It means Soliola should spend most of his time in the middle third for the Raiders, where his big motor will come in handy with interchanges reduced from 10 to eight this year.

Asked if he planned to move to the middle and leave Papalii and Whitehead to do damage out wide, Soliola said: "Yeah, that's the plan.

"I've spoken to Rick [Stuart, coach], I can play both positions and it's fortunate I can cover that and give opportunities to guys like Elliott Whitehead because he's a class player, and everyone knows about Josh Papalii.

"Why wouldn't you have those two out wide? They've earned the right to be there and I want to do what's best for the team and cater for where I'm needed."


Whitehead combined well with centre Joey Leilua on the right edge in Canberra's trial win over Newcastle last week, with Soliola playing lock in place of the injured Shaun Fensom (arm).

Soliola said he expects the reduced interchanges and faster game due to rule changes to make 80-minute players such as Shaun Fensom even more valuable.

Elliott Whitehead looks likely to slot into the Raiders' back row.
Elliott Whitehead looks likely to slot into the Raiders' back row. Photo: Phil Blatch (Central Western Daily).

The former Kiwi international singled out youngster Shannon Boyd as one of the pre-season standouts, with the 122kg giant prop shedding about half of his body fat over summer.

"He's been incredible, he was was one of the highlights of the pre-season and full credit to him, he's done all the work they've given him and he's just smashed it," Soliola said.

"The thing now is to stick with it, getting there is one thing but staying there is just as hard.

"The NRL is changing things and people think it might slow the big fellas down, so Shannon's had to take the opportunity to change himself and I think he's done a really good job.

"We've got a lot of depth in the side this year and no one's safe, including myself.

"The inclusion of [former Knight] Joe Tapine shows Ricky's serious about having competition, and Jeff Lima and Whitehead have got some experience under the belt as well.

"Boydy and [Paul] Vaughan, as loud as they are they'll realise the responsibilities they have and they'll need to work hard."

Canberra is in the closing stage of re-signing Soliola, who is off contract after this year.

A great mentor in one of the youngest teams in the NRL, Soliola has taken over from the departed David Shillington as an NRL State of Mind ambassador.

Suicide is the biggest killer of people aged 15 to 44 and the NRL has been rocked by the recent deaths of a handful of under-20s players.

"It's the times when players become quiet or their mood changes a bit, that's where I've got to stand up, hold myself accountable and identify those things," he said.

"The NRL is teaching us to identify those issues, I'm looking forward to the challenge.

"They did it with State of Origin last year so they're trying to spread the awareness of mental health and change the stigma of the 'she'll be right' situation in footy and avoid those disastrous outcomes."

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Saturday: Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers at Canberra Stadium, 3pm. Tickets available from Ticketek. TV: Live on Fox Sports 1.