Canberra Raiders 2017 Season in Review
Sia Soliola is not haunted by the tackle he made on Billy Slater that knocked the Melbourne Storm fullback out cold. In fact, Soliola credits Slater for helping him emerge a better person.
It was round 20 last season and the Canberra Raiders, fighting to keep their season alive, were hosting the Storm.
Slater had just passed the ball and was starting to slip over when Soliola collected him late and high. Slater was ferried to the sheds on a medicab and could not remember anything about the match at all.
Thankfully, Slater escaped serious injury and went on to win the premiership with the Storm and the World Cup with the Kangaroos.
Soliola only played once again last season – in round 26 – after the veteran lock was handed a five-week suspension from the NRL judiciary for his head-high tackle.
Fans on social media turned on him.
"It was one of those things that happened. They call it a game of inches and it is. We as players are constantly doing things with just a second or two to make a choice," Soliola told NRL.com. "Unfortunately, the choice I made was not a good one.
"But in terms of the football community and other players, there will always be comment. I've had people support me and I've had people criticise me."
One of the supporters was Slater, which some might find surprising. Soliola was taken aback, but he's very grateful.
"I've learned a lot from the whole thing. In terms of my reputation, I've actually grown a lot from that experience," Soliola said. "One of the best ways was the first-hand communication I had with Billy afterwards. I understood how professional he is and why he receives all the praise he does.
"I can understand why he is so respected in rugby league and in the wider community because of the gracious way he treated me. It was a nice thing for me to experience."
Soliola thought it would be best not to go into the Storm sheds after the game but apologised through an intermediary.
"The next day I texted him and he texted me back saying he realised it was not in my nature. He wanted to make sure I was OK. To receive that response – more from a welfare perspective for me – was pretty huge."
However, the actual tackle himself has made 100kg forward more tentative in tackling smaller players.
"It's one of those things where I probably will be a bit more cautious in that area. But in saying that I'm not going to change the way I approach games," he said. "I'm extremely proud of my attitude and that I play the game hard and I play fair.
"Decisions you make under fatigue and some duress mean you might make the wrong decision. I think a lot of people around me saw that ... saw that I'm not that kind of person.
"This game has provided me with a lot. I have kids. I'm a father. I'm a son. And I don't want to see that happen to anybody."
From the team's perspective, Soliola also doesn't want next season to mirror Canberra's 2017 season.
"Disappointment is the common feeling all around, considering the roster that we had," Soliola said of a team that finished the 2016 regular season in second place before plummet to 10th a year later.
"And I think that showed out there a little on the field where we lacked the composure needed. We let frustration creep in. Having that sort of season now out of the way, gives you the opportunity to reflect. We're working on that right now."
Another point of reflection comes knowing hooker Josh Hodgson is out for most of next year following a knee reconstruction for a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
"I really feel sorry for Hodgo because most of our traffic goes through him. He touches the ball first in the tackle. So it will make things a bit harder in terms of the boys missing that contribution."
But the 31-year-old jumps straight to the North Queensland experience last season of losing both co-captains: Matt Scott (ACL) in the second round and Johnathan Thurston for the last 15 games.
"We will all pick up the slack because we look at other situations like that – like what happened to Thurston and Scott last year and how the Cowboys reacted," he said.
"We saw players like Michael Morgan and Te Maire Martin step up. So there's an opportunity for our boys too. We need to fill Hodgo's leadership, his defence and his organisation on the field. We're prepared for that, we're addressing it and we're all looking forward to the challenge."
Soliola finds solace in the fact 27-year-old centre Jarrod Croker is growing each season as captain.
"He brings a lot of experience on those young shoulders. While he's still got lots to learn, we see his potential," Soliola said. "He's an awesome person. He's all about the Raiders. You don't hear anything bad about him because he's straight up and down and gives his all every time.
"What he does for our squad is respect. He speaks the truth and tells you like it is. He goes out and plays with commitment and passion every week. And that's what you want from you captain. That's how you earn respect of your players."