This is the second article in the three-part series that focuses on some of the game’s senior citizens who continue to defy the ageing process. In case you missed it, take a look at Part 1.
Following the recent retirement of Cameron Smith at age 37, the NRL’s four elder statesmen at the moment are:
So what is it with these players? How are they still producing the goods week after week after all these years?
How did they get to here? How long can they keep going?
Today, we’ll look at Iosia Soliola.
Hailing from Samoa via Auckland, Soliola made his first grade debut for the Roosters at the age of 19 in Round 1 of the 2005 season. Playing his first and only top-level game on the wing, he crossed for a try in the Chooks’ victory over South Sydney.
Switching positions with Joel Monaghan from Round 2 onwards, Soliola played the rest of the season at centre, and despite the Roosters just missing a place in the finals, he impressed enough to be selected for New Zealand to make his international debut as a 19-year-old, however, injury meant he had to drop out of the side.
2006 saw him play 21 games for the Roosters, and although they finished the year in second-last place, he was selected at centre for New Zealand in the Tri Nations, going on to score four times in five games, equal-highest for the series with Greg Inglis.
Injuries and patchy form saw Soliola in and out of the Roosters’ first grade side over the next three seasons, but those years weren’t without their personal highlights.
He was selected for the 2007 Anzac Test, was part of the Roosters side for their unsuccessful 2008 finals campaign, and was selected for, but had to withdraw from, NZ’s 2008 World Cup squad.
In many ways, 2009 was a watershed year for Soliola.
He played his last international as a centre against Australia in May, successfully made the transition into the forwards with the Roosters, announced that he was moving to the Super League to join St Helens the following season, and finished the year with four games in the forwards for New Zealand in the Four Nations tournament, forming a lethal backrow combination with Frank Pritchard and Adam Blair.
It not only looked like his days in the backline were over, but also his 92-game NRL career at the age of just 23, as England beckoned.
He was virtually an instant success in the ESL, going on to play a total of 117 games for St Helens, and crossing for 31 tries along the way.
However, premiership success still eluded him, with St Helens losing both the 2010 and 2011 Super League grand finals, and were knocked out in the semis in both 2012 and 2013.
Finally, in 2014, Soliola tasted premiership success, with St Helens defeating Wigan 14-6 in the Super League grand final, with Soliola crossing for a crucial try.
During his ESL stint, he captained Samoa in the 2013 World Cup, winning two of their three group games, before being knocked out in the quarter-finals by Fiji. This proved to be Soliola’s final international appearance.
Following the end of the successful 2014 ESL season, Soliola was still only 28 and could reasonably be expected to continue on with St Helens. However, he surprised one and all by signing on for 2015 with the Canberra Raiders.
Not many players make a successful return to the NRL from the ESL but Soliola proved to be an exception, hitting the ground running for the Raiders, and playing an integral part in the rise of the Canberra forward pack into one of the most effective and feared in the NRL.
He played nearly every game for the club over the next five seasons, including finals matches in 2016 and 2019, before suffering a horrific facial injury in Round 8 of 2020. The injury required a complete facial reconstruction and it looked unlikely that Soliola would get back on the field.
His career looked to be finally over at the age of 33.
However, testament to his strength and determination and his value to the Raiders team, he made it back by Round 20 that year, just 85 days after the injury, and went on to play through the finals series.
He was re-signed for the 2021 season, and has played an important role for the club coming off the bench in each game this year.
So what does Soliola bring?
Well, for a start, he’s one of the most experienced players in the competition, with over 330 first grade games and 16 internationals under his belt.
He also brings versatility, and having played nearly half of his career in the centres, has the ball skills, footwork and nous that can cause problems for the opposition when he has the ball in his hands.
He is also a powerful and ruthless defender. But what he brings most of all is grit.
Just the sort of player coach Ricky Stuart loves best.
Soliola is one of the hardest forwards in the game and never gives up. Even though he now primarily plays off the bench he is still very much a leader at the Raiders, and wouldn’t most other sides love to have someone of his calibre in their squads.