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‘Sia’ Soliola and his surprise return to rugby league

Sia Soliola standing with a ball with ball in hand

Iosia ‘Sia’ Soliola is a former professional rugby league player who played in the top flight for 17 seasons across his career.

Playing a total of 336 matches across the NRL and Super League, Soliola played 137 of those with the Canberra Raiders making him a favourite amongst the fans.

After retiring from NRL at the end of the 2021 season, Soliola has taken up a role with the Raiders as a Wellbeing and Education Manager and is now making his infamous return back to rugby league playing for the Queanbeyan Kangaroos in the Canberra Raiders Cup.

I sat down with Sia to discuss what sparked his return to rugby league, what he hopes to achieve in his revival and his role at the Raiders in helping the current playing group.

Q: Having only retired from first grade rugby league for about a year, what sparked your return to rugby league so soon?

A: It was just more to lose weight really, that was probably the biggest one. I was something like 12 months into retirement. I thought about the idea, so I sort of explored the idea on actually coming back and playing but the real reason was to actually sort of lose weight and then the only way I sort of knew how to do that was through the game of Rugby League and that’s something I’ve sort of known throughout my whole life.

Q: What was your driving force for playing local rugby league for Queanbeyan Kangaroos in particular?

A: Well Sam (Williams) was the biggest reason why I went to the Queanbeyan Roos. Obviously my relationship with Sam, I’ve played with and known for a long time here. I understand him as a player and a person and it was nice to reunite with an old footy mate as well.

Q: How much of an effect did Sam (Williams) have on you returning?

A: He asked me the question and I said I’ll come back to him with an answer just give me a couple of weeks to think about it. Obviously I understand how much time is involved too and that as well and I didn’t want to really muck around with Sam in terms of being able to give what I need to give… you know my wife is still finishing uni, she’s finishing her accounting degree and I’ve got the four kids so that would take up heaps of time. Obviously work and then trying to add footy on to that and I mentioned that to Sam, I said ‘Oh look man, I probably cant commit as much time as what I’m used to, but just know that I’ll be there to support the club 100%’.

Q: How did you know the time was right to return?

A: You never really know, It’s not until I sort of looked back at it and I was like, ‘I’m glad I made that decision’. Prior to that, I didn’t really know… that stuff wasn’t as sort of a dip your toe in the water, it’s something that I’m used to and I just wanted to sort of get back into it again. I understand the process of what it takes from start to finish in terms of like off season to the last game of the season.

What it has done for me actually like being with the Queanbeyan Roos and getting to know a lot of the guys and being in the footy environment again through the local department. It’s refreshing that’s for sure, and it reminds me of why a lot of us play footy and why we love the game. Whether you’re playing first grade or whether you’re playing park footy in third division or something like that, the mateships that you build and they don’t change, they’re things that you forge.

Q: What do you hope to achieve in your return to rugby league?

A: Oh obviously, like we all do when we are playing sports, you know is to be there on the big day and win on the big stage most importantly. I’ve gotten a bit of an understanding of Queanbeyan Roos, how they started and how much pride meeting a couple of their ex players as well understanding of what the jersey means to them what it means to the community as well. Once you get a feel and be able to unpack those little stories you feel connected obviously and that’s a part of who you are now. When I’m here at the Canberra Raiders a lot of people know me as a Canberra Raider but then obviously you uncover another layer, and I’m a Queanbeyan Roo as well and I think that’s pretty special.

Q: How can yourself and your years of experience playing 17 years in first grade experience help Queanbeyan Roos to be successful this year?

A: Obviously the knowledge and experience of playing professionally and understanding of what the structure of the games all about and how it’s sort of evolving. I’m fortunate enough that I’m still actually in the game being a Wellbeing officer and I can sit here and listen to all the conversations that’s happening, so still being in the environment. I guess one thing I’m trying to manage is how I used to be as a professional football player to not completely change into a local player, that’s not to say its ultra relaxed, but being able to be present in the environment that I’m at. For example, when I was playing for the Raiders everyone was sort of in their own headspace but still connected whereas in the local (league) it’s a bit more relaxed and free flowing and a little bit more jovial. So being able to be a part of that but still hold that professional stance as well and just being able to give a bit back to the lads about what it’s like.

Q: How has your impact on the Canberra Raiders in your playing days merged you into this role of Wellbeing officer now?

A: I’ve been pretty fortunate and Sam Wentworth my partner can probably feel the same, is that we have come out as players and so being able to transition out from a player’s role into this role we will probably have a lot more engagement and players will probably see a better understanding if we communicated with them as opposed to someone from the outside. That’s just only through the nature of coming through the system and being able to connect with them from being through their shoes.

Sia Soliola smiling with field in background
Q: You were a fan favourite amongst the Raiders fans, but how much of an influence and inspiration did you have behind the scenes on the players and staff around the club?

A: I look back at when I was a 18 or 19 year old or whoever I am going to talk to and being able to share my experiences, especially outside of the football field as well I think that’s where a lot of us get unstuck. On the football field a little bit, just being able to provide some comfort around the knowledge around the game and then how the game sort of evolved and being able to provide confidence for the kids… If I can sort of help one of the boys one conversation at a time that’s a pretty cool thing. You never really know how much you’ve helped them until later down the track.

Q: How crucial are your qualities as a person in being a Wellbeing officer?

A: In our role there’s lots to unpack sometimes, especially when a player is going through certain issues and different stuff and being able to sort of guide them through that journey or process. Something that I’ve always enjoyed and getting to know players, is that you know them waltz and all, from all the good stuff to their faults and that’s what we get but underneath there’s always a cool dude that I’ll always want to hang out with.

Part of this job is about building trust and forging those relationships through time and rapport and having that experience of being a past player we sort of get fast tracked in that space and that’s where it really helps us.

Photos by Harrison Frater