Rugby League

Right-edge duo Joey Leilua and Elliott Whitehead keen to run rampant for Raiders

Elliott Whitehead's Yorkshire accent is so thick he jokes fellow Pom Josh Hodgson needs to translate for his Canberra Raiders teammates.

But it just took half an hour of trial football to decipher Whitehead and reborn centre Joey Leilua's right-edge partnership could be as destructive as Josh Papalii and Blake Ferguson's.

Elliott Whitehead impressed in the Raiders' trial win at Orange.
Elliott Whitehead impressed in the Raiders' trial win at Orange. Photo: Phil Blatch (Central Western Daily).

When Rooster Ferguson was at the Raiders, Canberra directed much of their attack down Papalii and Ferguson's right flank with great success.

Both players are yet to establish themselves, with English international back rower Whitehead embarking on his debut NRL season and Leilua keen to live up to his potential after joining Canberra from Newcastle.

The early signs were good in Saturday's 34-28 win over the Knights at Orange. Whitehead's footwork and willingness to run tough lines stood out, while Leilua scored a try and set up two more for winger Jordan Rapana.

With Fensom (arm) sitting out the match, Sia Soliola took his place at lock with Queensland Origin star Papalii shifting to left edge.


The make-up of Canberra's back row remains unclear, with coach Ricky Stuart keeping his cards close to his chest when asked about Whitehead and Papalii after the match.

Five-eighth Blake Austin, who mainly terrorises defences down Canberra's right edge, is still to be thrown into the mix, as is fullback Jack Wighton.

Joey Leilua is wrapped up by the Knights' defence in Orange.
Joey Leilua is wrapped up by the Knights' defence in Orange. Photo: Phil Blatch (Central Western Daily).

"I was a bit nervous going into the game but just to get the first one out of the way was good," Whitehead said.

"The first half we didn't do much defending but I felt the difference, [it was] a little faster [than Super League] but I thought I went all right.

"I'm not sure what he [Stuart] is thinking for the first round but I'm going to keep my head down and train hard, and I'm sure Josh [Papalii], Sia [Soliola] and the other back rowers will do the same.

"Josh has been good with me, he's probably the only one who can understand me still and sometimes you need him to translate."

Whitehead was known for his willingness to take a risk in Super League, including grubber kicks and scoring tries off high kicks.

He is unsure whether Stuart will give him the green light to unfurl his bag of tricks.

"I'll probably do them if I get a get a chance," Whitehead said.

"I haven't spoken to him about it yet, but I wouldn't be too scared to try it.

"Footwork and running holes is what my game's about in attack so hopefully I can do that for the team and help win some games."

Leilua has shed a stack of weight over summer and now looks primed to rediscover the form that prompted Stuart to select him as 18th man for State of Origin when he was NSW coach.

"I felt a lot better and felt I could use the body a bit more, and go for a bit longer," Leilua said.

"Me and Elliott have been working hard over the off season trying to get our plays right, it's been good and we're enjoying ourselves.

"I don't know what the plan is for them [Whitehead and Papalii], I just saw Elliott during the pre-season training on the right side and Papa knows he's damaging either side he plays.

"It's going to be a tough decision for the coach, to make which is good for the team."

Gold Coast recruit Aidan Sezer was strong at halfback and combined well with hooker Hodgson, despite it being their only competitive hit-out together.

"It's been a long pre season and we've been striking up combinations for the last three months," Sezer said.

"Each and every team in the NRL has that belief and optimism in their squad this time of year, and we're no different."