Dragons 2018: Leilua emerges as Dragons finals trump card

KEY MOMENT: The Dragons celebrate Luciano Leilua's try against the Tigers on Saturday. Picture: AAP
KEY MOMENT: The Dragons celebrate Luciano Leilua's try against the Tigers on Saturday. Picture: AAP

HE was at the centre of a huge bidding war two seasons ago and Dragons fans are starting to see why, with Luciano Leilua emerging as a finals x factor for coach Paul McGregor.

The 22-year-old powerhouse made five top-grade appearances in 2016 and recruitment chief Ian Millward had to see off a determined raid from Cronulla to lock him down long-term.

It certainly proved a long-term investment, with Leilua spending 2017 exclusively in the Intrust Super Premiership with questions raised over his his off-field professionalism.

He attracted plenty of positives attention on that score, cutting a much trimmer figure after a strong preseason and it's starting to bear fruit three weeks out from the finals with his solo try against the Tigers on Saturday shaping as a season-turning moment.

The former Dragons under 20s player of the year shrugged of Benji Marshall and Michael Chee Kam like he was swatting flies on a 30-metre charge to the try-line. He also laid on Jordan Pereira's first-half try in what McGregor labeled his best performance at NRL level.

"Without a doubt [it was his best game]," McGergor said.

“I thought Kurt [Mann], Luch and Laf [Tim Lafai] on that left edge were very strong. We just spoke about that in the sheds, that's something now that should be his standard game because we see that talent often at training.

“When we do any opposed stuff at training he's the player on the opposition, if he's in reserve grade, that puts us under the most threat. He went out today and played with that threat in first grade. It's about maintaining that standard now for him consistently."

Leilua played three of the Dragons first four games but was forced to bide his time through the middle part of the season spending 10 games back in the ISP before re-emerging as a bench weapon in round 15.

It's proven a silver lining to Origin prop Paul Vaughan's absence after suffering ankle injury against the Warriors two weeks ago, with Tyson Frizell's shift to the middle of the park opening the door for Leilua to find a regular home on the left edge.

Having been forced to wait for his chance, Leilua said he was keen to make the most of the chance to start.

"I think it was one of my best games in first grade so that's where the bar's set now, I've got to live up to that and play with confidence."

Luciano Leilua

“I was just being patient waiting for my time,” Leilua said.

“I like starting but I'm here for the team. I always wanted to start and get some big minutes to credit so Mary (McGregor) for believing in me, it's been really good.

“I was happy to be the impact player but now he's giving me the chance to start and show what I can do so it's good. I think it was one of my best games in first grade so hopefully more to come.

“I think that's where the bar's set now so I've got to live up to that and play with confidence and hopefully I can be a regular first grader.”

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