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The Roar


Believe it or not, Luciano Leilua is a marquee player - just a wildly overpaid one cashing in on Dragons' desperation

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Roar Guru
27th February, 2024
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With the season just about to kick off, Shane Flanagan has finally got his man after months of trying and has made that long-awaited signing of a genuine marquee player.

No, not Addin Fonua-Blake, Joey Manu, Jarome Luai or even Tom Dearden, but prodigal son Luciano Leilua, who returns to the club after a patchy sojourn with the Tigers and the Cowboys. Welcome home Luch and thank God you’re here.

The astute among you will have noticed that I’ve described Leilua as a “marquee player”, but in a game where size matters, and here I’m talking about the size of the player’s contract and/or the brown paper bags in any given player’s dressing room locker, that’s exactly what he is.

Leilua has joined the Dragons on a reported $900k per year, and less than 4 per cent of the 510 players contracted to the NRL’s 17 first-grade rosters will be earning more than Leilua in 2024.

To put that into perspective, Leilua will reportedly be earning a shade less than elite forwards in Cameron Murray, Jason Taumalolo, Junior Paulo and Jake Trbojevic, the same as the likes of Jahrome Hughes, Jeremiah Nanai and Haumole Olakau’atu, marginally more than established stars Patrick Carrigan, Viliame Kikau, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Stephen Crichton, while mere mortals and Australian Kangaroos like Thomas Flegler, Jack Wighton, Lindsay Collins and Reuben Cotter can only dream of reaching Luch’s pay grade at some stage in their careers.

Luciano Leilua. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Leilua’s signing raises a couple of questions for the Dragons faithful, with the first being: is he worth the small fortune that he’s being paid? The answer to this question is both a “no” and a “yes”.

On the negative side, and based on his body of work to date, Leilua is simply not worth anywhere near $900k per season when compared to other forwards earning that sort of freight. Let’s look at what he’s done in his career so far.


Towards the end of his first stint at the Dragons in 2019, he was developing into a very useful impact player coming off the bench to cause a bit of havoc against the opposition’s edge defence. It was obvious, however, that Dragons’ coach Paul McGregor didn’t know how to get the best out of Leilua, nor for that matter out of a forward pack containing the likes of James Graham, Paul Vaughan, Cameron McInnes, Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims, and it was no surprise to see Leilua head to the Tigers in 2020 in search of a place in the run-on team.

His career as a starting second rower picked up at the Tigers but his time at the club ended abruptly midway through the 2022 season when coach Michael Maguire was punted, and he immediately joined the Cowboys. His good form then continued in Far North Queensland before his progress was largely stalled by an off-field issue. So, based on his career achievements to date, his market value would appear to be much closer to $400k-500k than the money the Dragons have signed him for.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 06: Dragons assistant coach Shane Flanagan looks on before the start of the round 17 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the St George Illawarra Dragons at QCB Stadium on September 06, 2020 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Shane Flanagan. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

On the other hand, there’s a very good argument to say that yes, Leilua is worth $900k to the Dragons, because if they have the salary cap money to spend then they’re better off spending it. At this late hour, better to sign a player of Leilua’s ability than “waste” the available salary cap, even if they’re paying over market value.

The second question Dragons fans will have is where Leilua fits into coach Shane Flanagan’s plans to revive the Dragons in 2024 and beyond?

This one is more difficult to answer, but at $900k, coach Flanagan clearly isn’t planning on Leilua playing reserve grade too often. Looking at the Dragons’ roster, they certainly aren’t short of second rowers, just check this list out: Ryan Couchman, Toby Couchman, Tom Eisenhuth, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Dan Russell, Jaydn Su’A, possibly Jack Bird, and then there’s another young gun in Dylan Egan on a development contract in 2024 who’ll be knocking on the door of first grade before too long.


If you count Leilua, second rowers account for over 25 per cent of the Dragons’ 30-man squad, and they also have almost as many middle forwards. Perhaps Flanagan intends to use both Faitala-Mariner and Murdoch-Masila in the middle of the field rather than on the edge, or perhaps it’s Leilua who’ll find himself as part of the middle forward rotation? Whichever way Shane Flanagan goes, there’ll be some talented forwards struggling to find a place in the first 17.

The third question is whether the Dragons would have been better off to save their money, and their final roster position, until later in the year rather than commit to Leilua now? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding “yes” given the Dragons’ forward depth when compared to their talent across the rest of the park, particularly spine positions.

No doubt a number of players will be looking to change clubs between now and the June 30 deadline, and with money to spend and a roster position open, the Dragons could have had an opportunity to pick up a player more important to the balance of their squad than Leilua.

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Regardless of the above, Leilua is with the Dragons now and it will be interesting to see whether he can recapture his best form while wearing the big red V.