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'A player in his prime': Exiled from the NRL, Leilua finds new club

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24th November, 2021
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Former Wests Tigers centre Joey Leilua will head to England in a bid to revive his wilting rugby league career after signing with tier-two team Featherstone Rovers for 2022.

The explosive 29-year-old was set to make his professional boxing debut against former NRL player Chris Heighington on December 10 but the bout has been scrapped following reports Leilua may have contracted COVID-19.

Sea Eagles prop Josh Aloiai, who was poised to fight former Sharks captain Paul Gallen in the main event and trained with Leilua, has been confirmed to have COVID-19.

But while there’s hope for the Aloiai-Gallen card to be rescheduled before Christmas, Leilua is considered unlikely to box on a later date due to his commitments with Featherstone.

Leilua recently acknowledged in a candid interview with Code Sports that his fight was a final chance to prove to NRL clubs he was worth another chance.

“If I was to retire, I’d be disappointed because I still think I have the ability to play first grade at a high level,” Leilua said.

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“It’s been difficult, but I still love footy. I’m still passionate about it.”

At the Rovers, Leilua will play under Brian McDermott – the former Toronto Wolfpack and Leeds Rhinos coach – and help the club’s push for Super League promotion.

Featherstone have lost the Million Pound Game – a match that decides which team from the UK Championship will gain Super League entry – in 2019 and 2021.

“This signing is another clear demonstration of this club’s unwavering ambition and focus on gaining Super League promotion,” McDermott said.

“Joey brings a level of experience and raw ability that is unrivalled in the Championship. He’ll add some serious size, strength and focussed aggression which will help this side go up to another level.

“I’ve had many conversations with Joey over the last few weeks, we’re looking forward to working together to achieve our Super League objective.”

Still, two-tier footy in England is a far cry from the bright lights of the NRL.

It was only two years ago that Leilua played in Canberra’s grand final loss to the Roosters.

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The two-time Dally M Centre of the Year has struggled for consistency in recent times. He admitted his decision to join the Wests Tigers in 2020 was the most regrettable of his career.

“I wish I could take it back, to be honest,” he told Code Sports.

At the heart of his frustration at Concord was a difficult relationship with coach Michael Maguire.

“Every week we’d change to different tactics,” Leilua said.

“For a few weeks, we had passive defence and teams were scoring on us. Then the next week, he’d say, ‘We’re going to hold the line’, and teams would keep scoring on us. Three weeks later, it changed to, ‘Let’s jam’. We just didn’t have a system.”

Perhaps a fresh start with the Rovers could reinvigorate the undoubtedly talented Leilua, a Samoan international who is hard to handle when in the zone.

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“I’m really pleased that Joey has signed, he’s a fantastic acquisition for Featherstone, this is one of the most significant signings in our history, for the Championship and for rugby league in this country,” Featherstone chairman Mark Campbell said.

“He’s a player in his prime at 29 years old who’s been recognised as one of the best in the game with his Dally M awards, his 225 NRL appearances underline that fact.”

Leilua last played for the Tigers in round 11 this year.

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