How a streetball legend and JT helped Leilua become the Dragons' X-factor
Luciano Leilua is nicknamed after a basketball cult hero and says the NRL star he most wanted to emulate was Johnathan Thurston, but the Dragons forward insists he is ready to fill the void left by the season-ending injury to NSW Origin prop Paul Vaughan.
The absence of Vaughan in the past two matches has enabled Leilua to start as St George Illawarra's left edge back-rower and while he believes he is best suited as an impact player he is expected to continue playing big minutes for the remainder of the season.
It's an opportunity Leilua let slip during the pre-season when he was in a duel with Tariq Sims for the position made vacant by Joel Thompson's move to Manly but the 22-year-old demonstrated he was now ready with a starring role in last Saturday's 20-10 defeat of Wests Tigers.
Not only did Leilua score a try, he ran 129 metres with the ball, made 40 tackles and finished his 77-minute stint with seven tackle breaks, three offloads and a line break.
It was a coming-of-age performance by a player who at 186cm tall and weighing 113kg is the biggest player at the club – and one of the most skilful.
"He was the X-factor for us on the weekend and that is the stuff that we see on the training paddock all the time," Dragons co-captain Tyson Frizell said. "He is a halfback in a prop's body."
Leilua, who revealed he had dropped eight kilograms and was aiming to repeat the dose to get to 105kg next season, wanted to play like Thurston when he was younger.
"I used to like to watch Thurston. That's how I learned," he said.
However Leilua's real heroes are basketball stars and he spends so much time playing during breaks in training at WIN Stadium that teammates have nicknamed him "Escalade" after the late streetballer Troy Jackson, who was 203cm tall and weighed 175kg at his peak a decade ago.
Jackson, whose brother Mark had a long and successful NBA career from 1987 to 2004, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005.
"He was real silky. He was a massive bloke, a big point guard with mad handles. That's him," Dragons utility Jai Field said, pointing at Leilua.
Leilia said: "It's a nice wrap, I will take that. He was the man."
It's a description many believe could apply to Leilua if he fulfils the potential he first showed when introduced to the NRL in 2016 by St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor.
After failing to add to his five NRL appearances last year, McGregor gave Leilua the chance to claim the No.12 jersey formerly worn by Thompson during the pre-season but Sims earned it with his first shot and went on to play for NSW.
"All credit goes to Taz, he worked hard for that this year and he killed it. He made his Origin dream come true," Leilua said of Sims.
"My goal at the beginning of the year was probably to be an impact player. I still love to be an impact player but I will do whatever is best for the team."
Leilua had been preparing to return to the interchange for Sunday's match against Canterbury but a season-ending foot injury suffered by Vaughan at training on Tuesday means Leilua will have to take on a more significant role for the remainder of the season.
"Mary has put a lot of faith in me to start at left second-rower and the main thing now is to make sure I keep doing it week in and week out."