The Canberra Raiders have enjoyed so much success this season in such a rapid way that there’s a tendency to overlook the things that haven’t gone right. Josh Hodgson has emerged as one of the four best players in the competition, BJ Leilua has given up burgers, Jordan Rapana has gone from potential squad filler to elite winger, Jack Wighton has emerged as the best defensive fullback in the competition, and Josh Papalii has treated opposing defences like Ryan Lochte treats bathrooms (hint: poorly). It’s safe to say, there’s been a few success stories.
One person that has not had a season to remember is one of the few your humble scribe had assumed was always destined for greatness: Paul Vaughan. A fellow Lyneham Primary alumnus, Vaughan debuted for the Raiders in 2013, and early in 2014 single-handedly earned the Raiders a rare victory against Melbourne. That year he would go on to earn his first of three consecutive Country Representative gongs.
2015 showed he was not just promising, but potentially elite. Week after week he ate metres like I eat the chips on the couch (voraciously), ending the season having taken the 13th most hit-ups in the competitions and 9th in all-run metres amongst forwards (140 metres per game). He emerged as the prototype of an elite prop, showing a unique ability to bend the line, take the metres and get to his stomach for a quick play the ball.
In a competition which has its share of elite bigs (Bromwich, Gallen, Taumalolo, Scott, Tamou, Fifita, Warea-Hargreaves, MacGuire, Graham, Tolman, Klemmer etc), Vaughan was amongst the best all season. It seemed that the only thing separating him from higher honours was the unique approach to selection of the Blues coach and former Raider Laurie Daley.
2016 seemed in the large part to be going the same way as 2015 early on. In the first twelve games of the season, Vaughan averaged over 128 metres per game and led the Raiders’ forwards in yards in six of the twelve games. He was among conversation for origin and the Australian side. But Stuart was unimpressed with his consistency and effort, as well as that of his fellow props.
The arrival of Junior Paulo highlighted that these questions weren’t just in passing. After Paulo’s arrival, Vaughan was the forward deemed expendable, and the guillotine dropped. As Paulo was lining up for his first game in Canberra colours, Vaughan missed his first game since 2014.
Most observers assumed this was a temporary situation. And when Vaughan returned for the Broncos game in the next round to again lead the Raiders forwards in yards (149m) in a loss, it was assumed that somewhat normal service had resumed. But after the bye, Vaughan had three relatively quiet games (against the Titans, Knights and Cowboys) in which his ever shrinking yardage resulted from the reduced minutes he received.
It was clear he was in the doghouse. And then came the second bye and Paul Vaughan, soon-to-be representative forward, was suddenly nowhere to be seen. As the Raiders began to establish themselves as a genuine contender, Vaughan was spending his weeks in New South Wales Cup with the Raiders’ feeder club, the Mounties.
For us this has seemed odd. From a ball-running perspective, Vaughan has been demonstrably the Raiders best prop. In the 2016 season he’s averaged 121.4 metres per game. This still leads all Raiders forwards, including Paulo (116.1), Papalii (118.7), Tapine (78.7), Boyd (89.2) and Priest (57.5).
And defensively, while Vaughan is hardly Shaun Fensom, his tackle rate has always been broadly equivalent to the other men in the middle. His averages per game (21.9) for 2016 are roughly equivalent to Tapine (21.6), Boyd (21.8), Papalii (23.1) and Bateman (24.9). And even if we take into the differing minutes that these big men play, we can see that on a per minute basis his effort has been equivalent of the rest of the middle-men.
Table 1 – Tackles per minute big dudes year to date (for the Raiders)
|Player||Tackles||Minutes||Tackles per minute|
Clearly, at least from a statistical perspective, there can be no qualms with Vaughan’s performance. He has been the Raiders best prop with the ball, and he has been perfectly adequate without it. His replacements cannot compare on either measure.
Theories as to why Paul Vaughan has remained on the outer in the large part have proved unsatisfactory. As demonstrated, the idea that he is of less utility to the Raiders than Luke Bateman or Clay Priest is laughable. Both players are honest workers and run hard into the line. But both end up every tackle on their back, unable to match Vaughan’s uncanny ability to get to his stomach and to a quick play the ball. They demonstrate effort more overtly than Vaughan, but if you pick sides on how hard someone looks they are working then you’re an idiot.
Another theory was that the Raiders needed to shed his cap hit in order to make space to keep the side together for 2017. But as Club CEO Don Furner revealed on the Fox Sports Market Watch podcast, the side was set in stone for the next season and the Raiders wouldn’t be looking to sign new players until 2018. Getting rid of Vaughan may create space to spend on a player, but to what end? It would unlikely be enough money to attract an elite half. The Raiders back five seems set in stone. They hardly need more back-rowers with Shaun Fensom and Jarryd Kennedy waiting in Mounties, Mitch Barnett already released to Newcastle, and Sia Soliola playing limited minutes filling in across all forward positions.
This weekend Vaughan gets an opportunity he has been waiting some weeks for. The best forward you haven’t seen in weeks can establish himself as an additional weapon in the Raiders seemingly unending arsenal. If the Raiders are serious about contending for the premiership this year, they can hardly afford to leave such talent on the sidelines.
 Cam Smith, Thurston, Hodgson, Cronk. This is a statement of fact not an argument.
 It’s a pretty impressive list, including other Raiders (David Boyle), a Paralympic medal winner (Angela Ballard), stand-up comedians (Gary Eck), and homely bloggers (yay me!).
 Per NRL Stats
 For Shannon Boyd. Equally perplexing.