Note: Mal Meninga has now confirmed that injury kept Leilua from consideration.
The Australian squad for the upcoming Four Nations tournament was announced today. In it was Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan. Not in it was BJ Leilua. This is a error made by overly conservative representative selectors that have again failed to pick the best centre in the competition. But it may work out for the Raiders.
Ostensibly the reason is that Leilua is injured. But as the tournament doesn’t start for three weeks, precisely the time he says he needs to recover, it seems worth considering whether Leilua is worth the risk.
When came to the Raiders mid-way through last season, Leilua was out of form and out of shape. He’d been in football purgatory since his frankly awful behaviour saw the Roosters tear up his contact. It was clear that he needed leadership and mentoring in order to find the best of himself on the field as well as off it.
A proper off-season, a better diet and a renewed attitude to footy later, Leilua had a season for the ages. With Elliot Whitehead and Jordan Rapana he unleashed holy-hell on the left-edge defence of the competition. Between the three of them they accounted for 32 per cent of the tries of the competitions leading attack.
Leilua himself had 14 try assists, 18th in the competition, and the only non-spine player in the top 30 in the NRL. Not only that, but he was 23rd in all-run metres for 2016, the first person on that list who wasn’t a forward or returning kicks.
Think about that. Having BJ Leilua in your side is like having an extra half and an extra forward.
BJ was also 4th in the competition in tackle breaks, second in offloads, 10th in line-break assists (ahead of Cameron Smith and Josh Hodgson) and 21st in tackle breaks.
It was almost understandable when the Blues’ selectors couldn’t find space for BJ. His rich vein of from had been going for a few rounds when origin begun, and NSW never picks its best players. But by the end of the season there was no question as to who should be in the national side.
Alas the Kangaroos’ selectors couldn’t find a place for him. Instead they selected Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson because they always do. There’s not really any point comparing the stats of Ferguson and Dugan to Leilua because it’s unfair. But hey, we did it anyway.
There’s no comparison. Ferguson and Dugan returned kicks and couldn’t make as many metres as Leilua. They don’t lead Leilua on any metric (other than getting up from tackles gingerly which Dugan leads the league in).
It’s clear that no case is possible to be made on a performance basis for selecting Ferguson and Dugan over Leilua. Indeed Leilua’s hamstring has probably brought him unstuck, despite his plea to the national coach. It’s worth considering that if the selectors were worried about durability then Josh Dugan is not a solution.
One might be tempted to see this as a boon for the Raiders. Leilua takes the set-back on the chin and uses it to fuel him to even greater performances next year. A healthy hamstring and another off-season and he is sure to continue to improve. Which is scary. So as a Raiders fan I am almost happy. As I’m sure Ricky Stuart and Don Furner probably are.
But for BJ he has again been overlooked for higher honours. Not because he didn’t deserve it. Not because he couldn’t do the job. But because the selectors and his hamstring couldn’t get along. You’ve got to feel for him.