As Lachlan Ilias prepares to take his first step towards becoming South Sydney’s long-term replacement for Adam Reynolds in Friday night’s clash with Brisbane, Wests Tigers star Adam Doueihi has revealed his role in helping to steer the rookie playmaker away from rugby union.
Ilias, who grew up playing both rugby codes at representative level, is believed to be the first graduate of renowned union nursery, Trinity Grammar, to play in the NRL.
After taking a break from league to focus on his HSC in 2018, Ilias earned selection in the NSW Schoolboys XV and Australian Youth rugby sevens teams, and appeared to be on a similar path to Trinity team-mates Tane Edmed (NSW Waratahs) and Tom Lambert (Glasgow Warriors).
However, Souths were also interested and Ilais sought out Doueihi for advice as the Lebanon international had a similar background of playing Matthews Cup and Jersey Flegg for Balmain, while representing the Australian Schoolboys rugby union team from St Patricks College, Strathfield.
Doueihi was playing for the Rabbitohs at the time after choosing league over union before the 2017 World Cup and he convinced Ilias, who is set to represent Greece at the end of year World Cup in England, to do the same.
“When I was in Year 12, he was in Year 10 and I played against him,” Doueihi said. “He was playing two or three years up, so I always knew he was a good kid. He came through the Tigers system and I knew that a few union clubs were also after him after Year 12.
“I was at Souths at the time, and he was just tossing up a few ideas and asking what it was like. He reached out to me, so I offered him some advice and he ended up going to Souths.
“It has paid dividends for him and he seems to be fitting in really well there. He is at a fantastic club with a good group of boys around him who have a lot of experience to help him out so I am sure that the more games he plays the better he will get.
“I have followed him since that day. He is a really skilful kid and I have a lot of praise for him.”
Ilias has been earmarked as the next long term Souths halfback almost since joining the club and the 21-year-old insists he has never regretted his decision to choose league over union.
“I was always into league growing up but I stopped playing in Year 12 so I could focus on my schoolwork and my school footy, and I really did enjoy my school rugby union, but when the time came to make a decision Souths approached me and there is no better club,” he said.
“I haven’t looked back once since. They have been great on and off the field, supporting me and my family. There is a massive history at this club and a massive fan base, and as soon as you come to Souths you learn how great this club is."
Until Reynolds tested positive to COVID-19, the biggest storyline of the NRL's opening round was set to be about the man who led Souths to last year's grand final playing his former club and the rookie he had helped groom to replace him.
Yet despite Reynolds signing with the Broncos midway through last season, Ilias's only NRL action until now was in the final round of last year’s Telstra Premiership, when he partnered one of his heroes, Benji Marshall, at the scrum-base.
Former Kangaroos star Darius Boyd was another of Ilias’s childhood idols when he was playing fullback in St George Illawarra’s 2010 premiership winning team, but the player he now looks up to is Rabbitohs halves partner and mentor, Cody Walker.
After helping to lead Souths’ Jersey Flegg team to premiership glory in 2019, the 21-year-old has played just 13 matches since due to the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on lower grade competitions during the past two seasons.
However, he moved to the Gold Coast with the Rabbitohs squad last season after all NRL teams relocated to south-east Queensland because of border restrictions and spent four months training opposite Walker and Reynolds as Souths fell agonisingly short of a 22nd premiership.
“I was pretty much defending the whole time last year in opposed sessions so I was pretty much just learning from Reyno, Benji and Cody,” Ilias said.
“Seeing the way that Reyno controls the team and how he holds the ball up, and digs into the line, was massive for my development.
“Cody has been really supportive of me; he will pull me out a few times during a session and walk me through how to do things and I am grateful for that.
“He is a bit of a fossil, but he takes care of his body. For his age he does more than people realise to stay fit, and he is still doing extras at training.
“He is not one of those players who thinks he has got it. He still works hard and all the stuff that comes off in the games, he does at training. People go on about it, but we see it every day.
“Cody will call the shots in games. I think he has been doing that the last few years anyway. He is really smart footy-wise, so he knows what the team is feeling and what kind of shape to run and what is best for the team. It is my job to relay the call and get all of the team on the same page.”
Walker said Ilias would benefit from regular game time and the 32-year-old was confident their combination would develop as the season progressed.
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“Lachie and the other young guys who came away with us last year pretty much did a pre-season for four months - and now they have done another one," Walker said.
"He trained with us each and every week. We would do our captain’s run and the boys would have to go off and do more training because they had to be ready if needed each week.
“They had to get their contact in because they needed to replicate game-type intensity at training. That is quite hard to do after seeing us only out there for 20 minutes and then having to do a fitness session, but it shows how hungry he is.
“He has a pretty calm head, a good kicking game and is a good defender. He is quite strong in the gym so that helps when you have 110kg backrowers running at you.
"I am just expecting him to do his job and he will be well supported by everyone at this club, not only me."