By Christian Nicolussi
January 29, 2020 — 9.00pm
Joey Leilua thinks himself a better centre than Curtis Scott, but said his days in Canberra were always numbered because of his strained relationship with Ricky Stuart. Leilua enjoyed his first day at Wests Tigers training on a steamy Tuesday and spoke about his excitement to play outside his younger brother Luciano and inside fellow Samoan David Nofoaluma. While Leilua will add plenty of size and experience out wide for the Tigers, he told the Herald how there was no future for him in the nation’s capital.
The 28-year-old and Stuart first clashed over team selection in the lead-up to a round-21 clash against the Sydney Roosters, then again this month when he was snubbed from a Sunshine Coast training camp for being overweight. Even when news filtered through on Monday that Scott had spent the night behind bars and could be stood down for the start of the season with Canberra, Leilua had no appetite to back out on the Tigers and coach Michael Maguire.
“I was never going to backflip, my decision was made and in my mind I was done with Canberra,” Leilua told the Herald. "I couldn’t wait to get here and get around a new environment "Something happened last year between me and ‘Sticky’ [Stuart] and I wasn’t happy. "I was coming back from my neck [surgery] and he told me I’d be back for the Roosters. I would have been up against Latrell [Mitchell], I worked my arse off and got mentally prepared. "Then they went over to New Zealand the week before and had a massive win, he came back and said I wasn’t good enough to play.
"I said to him, ‘How can you say that when you told me to get ready?’
"I asked him if he thought I wasn’t good enough for the team, and he said, ‘you’re not good enough for this team’. "From that moment I was off him. We lost to the Roosters, he called me up the next week and we won. "I was still mad. I wasn’t happy with him. I respect Ricky as a coach and what he has done for me, but I wasn’t happy.
"Even when I came back for pre-season training, I was a bit overweight, I had just had my wedding, and he wasn’t happy. "I wasn’t the only one overweight in the team, but I was the only one told to go and train with reserve grade. “They left me behind for that training camp for two weeks. That’s when my mind was made up to search for another club.” Leilua was into the final year of his deal with the Raiders and told he would not be offered a contract for 2021.
He maintained he was a better option than Scott, the Melbourne recruit who was expected to be given first shot at right centre, and was prepared to fight his way back into first grade if he had to see out the year in Canberra. “Deep down I knew I was better than most centres there, and that’s not being cocky, that’s being confident because I know what I’m capable of,” Leilua said.
When the Herald pointed out to the former Dally M centre of the year that he often produced performances that were “rocks and diamonds”, he laughed and said, "Maybe in 2017 and 2018 it was rocks and diamonds, but then I got hurt in 2019, so you can’t judge me on that. My first seven games last year I considered myself one of the best centres in the game. It took me a while to get back.
"My best years are still to come. I’ll be doing my best to get into shape for round one. I can’t wait to tell [Luciano] what to do. I’ll be screaming at him on the edge.
“If you really want something you can get it. That was the [philosophy] at Canberra and it will be no different at the Tigers - if we really want it we can get it.”
Leilua quickly made an impression with his new Tigers teammates. He weighs around 115kg and plays at 109kg. His signing is expected to be followed by South Sydney utility Adam Doueihi who has already been told to look for a better deal elsewhere by Wayne Bennett and has a tremendous rapport with Maguire.
Meanwhile, the Tigers also confirmed the signing of Parramatta prop Stefano Utoikamanu for three years from 2021.