Raiders star’s nine-year wait for Grand Final redemption
AFTER getting his first taste of NRL grand final day as a wide-eyed and naive teenager, Joey Leilua was lured into thinking that he would be there on the first Sunday of October every year.
The Canberra centre made his maiden appearance in a season-decider as a fresh- faced 18-year-old for the Sydney Roosters in 2010 in what was his debut first-grade season.
At the time, success came a little bit too easy for the western Sydney-born powerhouse.
While the Roosters fell to Wayne Bennett's St George Illawarra that day, it set an expectation in Leilua's mind that he would make the grand final every year. It has taken him two club changes - to Newcastle and then the Raiders - and nine seasons to get back to the grand final.
And he is now determined to make the most of his opportunity for a premiership ring when he takes on his former club at ANZ Stadium on Sunday.
"All I remember was being excited, I thought I'd be there every year," Leilua said.
"Now you realise it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be in there.
"It's a credit to Cooper Cronk. How many grand finals has he played in? Nine?
"He's got a great resume, he's so good because he does the hard work."
Leilua is perhaps most representative of the club's turnaround this year as coach Ricky Stuart and his staff instilled defensive steel in the Raiders. Last year, defence was their Achilles heel - while they were top of the league for points scored (23.5 per game), they were 12th for points conceded (22.5) and they missed the top eight.
This year it's been a complete about-face, they are fourth for attack (21.2) but third for defence (15.2).
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In particular tightening up the Raiders' right edge, where Leilua and Jordan Rapana ply their trade, has been crucial.
In 2018 they leaked 43 tries through their right channel - exactly half of all tries the Raiders conceded.
But 12 months on and they've only let in 20, making them the second-most efficient right edge in the competition.
"It takes a team of good defenders to win grand finals, that's what we've got here now," Leilua said.
"It comes from a pre-season of getting pumped and flogged, making sure we never give up on each play.
"Give credit to the coaches because they killed us during the pre-season. I kind of got sick of it. But it's a part of what the team wanted to achieve."