Rugby League

New and improved Canberra Raider Joey Leilua starts from scratch

Canberra Raiders centre Joey Leilua says he is starting from scratch in lime green this year, but coach Ricky Stuart declared the man maligned for his fluctuating fitness is finally in the best shape of his career.

Leilua will end a long wait to play against his former Newcastle teammates when the Raiders play the Knights in an NRL trial at Orange on Saturday night.

Joey Leilua says he is in the best condition he has ever been.
Joey Leilua says he is in the best condition he has ever been. Photo: Rohan Thomson

It comes after the Knights released the former fringe NSW Blue midway through last year, and inserted a clause in his contract that prevented him playing against them last year.

The 24-year-old was then hit with suspension and injury as he played just six games for the Raiders in 2015.

But that has paved the way for a new beginning in the capital, and Leilua said he does not hold any grudges against the Knights as he restarts his career for the Green Machine.

"It feels like a new start this year," Leilua said.

"When the time comes it will be good to play the Knights again after missing last year's matches.

"I don't hold anything against [the Knights] - I just wanted to move away and start something new, and I'm really enjoying my time here now.

Joey Leilua playing for the Knights last season.
Joey Leilua playing for the Knights last season. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

"I just can't wait to play footy, it's been a while since we played so it's going to be good to get out there."

Leilua is part of a 26-man Raiders squad to take on the Knights, with Stuart admitting he is about 80 per cent settled on his team for round one of the NRL season.

Barring injury this weekend, Leilua will start in the centres for the Raiders when the NRL campaign begins on March 5.

Leilua has long been touted as a star - making his debut for the Sydney Roosters as a teenager before playing in their losing grand final team in 2010.

He starred in the annual City-Country Origin clash as a 20-year-old and was named 19th man in then Blues coach Ricky Stuart's Origin team.

But he has also been labelled a lazy player and was called out by Knights player Kurt Gidley last year, saying: "He's got all the talent there but we need him buying into everything that we're trying to do. You need to be doing the same things that every other player's doing, and the extras to be part of our team week-in, week-out."

It is a review that did not sit well with Leilua, and he worked hard to impress Stuart during the off-season, resulting in a new contract with the Raiders until the end of 2018.

"I think it's the best shape he's been in since he's been involved with in NRL. I think it's the first full off-season he's had for four or five years," Stuart said.

"When I signed Joe I asked him to trust and commit to me in regards with what I needed to do for him to get him to play his best football, and his commitment and trust in our staff has been the reason why he is looking the way he is.

"He's in wonderful shape, his condition is great, he's dropped a lot of body fat, I know [Raiders head of physical performance] Nigel Ashley-Jones says he's one of the best athletes he's coached, and that's a big rap.

"He's explosive, he's got good speed, good balance when he runs - he's been very committed to everything we've asked of him."

Leilua agrees with Stuart's assessment, and said he has worked on improving his diet. He also feels more settled in Canberra since his partner Tiana moved from Brisbane to live with him.

"I've just changed my mindset," Leilua said.

"I really wanted to succeed and Ricky was a big part of that. He said to me: 'You can be anything if you put your mind to it' so I did put my mind to it and stuck at it.

"I love it here, Canberra is the best place for me. It's a bit different from the city and Sydney but it's a really tight group and everyone enjoys each other's company.

"It's suited me well and I've loved every minute of it. Now I'm living with my partner [Tiana] and she's been really helpful ... when you come home from work you want to see someone you care about and enjoy a cooked meal together - it's been really good."

NRL TRIAL

Newcastle Knights v Canberra Raiders: Saturday, 6.30pm at Wade Park, Orange.

Knights: 1. Jaelen Feeney, 2. Jake Mamo, 3. Pat Mata'utia, 4. Dane Gagai, 5. Akuila Uate, 6. Brock Lamb, 7. Trent Hodkinson, 8. Kade Snowden, 9. Danny Levi, 10. Jack Stockwell, 11. Korbin Sims, 12. Robbie Rochow, 13. Jeremy Smith. Interchange: 14. Tyler Randell, 15. Mickey Paea, 16. Pauli Pauli, 17. Sam Mataora, 18. Jacob Saifiti, 19. Daniel Saifiti, 20. Lachlan Fitzgibbon, 21. Will Pearsell, 22. Nathan Ross, 23. Sione Mata'utia, 24. David Bhana, 25. Chanel Mata'utia.

Raiders (squad): Kurt Baptiste, Mitchell Barnett, Luke Bateman, Shannon Boyd, Adam Clydsdale, Jarrod Croker (c), Lachlan Croker, Josh Hodgson, Jarrad Kennedy, Rhys Kennedy, Brenko Lee, Edrick Lee, Joey Leilua, Jeff Lima, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Kato Ottio, Josh Papalii, Jordan Rapana, Zac Santo, Aidan Sezer, Sia Soliola, Paul Vaughan, Sisa Waqa, Elliott Whitehead, Jack Wighton, Jack Williams, Sam Williams.

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