You’d think after the 2016 season that the Canberra Raiders had that Santa would have been delivering all kinds of goodies down the chimneys of the capital. However, the Raiders have been lumped with coal in the form of a torn Achilles for back-up rake Kurt Baptiste, leaving most Raiders fans without much cheer this holiday period. The road to the 2017 premiership just became a little bit harder.
On a personal level Baptiste must be gutted. This injury will not doubt rule him out for 2017. If he does return he will be a shell of a man. An achilles rupture robs players of their acceleration, something that Baptiste has made much use of throughout his career. Even in 2018 it’s unlikely he will play up the level of 2016 – one can look to examples across the sporting world of players struggling with the impact of this particular injury.
Most people would recognise the impact of Baptiste in his ability to come on at the end of halves and redirect the Raiders attack in a more ‘north-south’ fashion, often getting in-and-around tired forwards. No better was this evidenced than against Brisbane last year, when the Baptiste single-handedly engineered a comeback from dummy-half, scoring twice and salvaging respectability for a Raiders side that had been handily outplayed. The Green Machine will no doubt miss this directness, as well as the potential rest it gave to star, and all around hero to humanity, Josh Hodgson.
But the impact is much wider than this. It reduces the effectiveness of Stuart’s “three-half” attack, in which Baptiste pushed Hodgson out to first receiver. This had been used effectively later in the season to allow the Raiders to a ball-playing half on either side of the ruck, freeing up running five-eighth Blake Austin from organising or creativity responsibilities to play wider. This attack relied on the ability of the substitute rake to keep the defence honest around the ruck by presenting enough of a threat that the ball would still be played through the middle to give Hodgson and halfback Aidan Sezer time on the edges. Baptiste could provide adequate enough service to do this (just). While Adam Clydesdale is a talented footballer, his forays at nine last season resulted in neither the service nor the ball-running to do this.
The loss of Baptiste also means that Lachlan Croker will have to be ready to play next season. Starting Baptiste in the ruck and Hodgson in the halves, although not readily used last season, was plainly the most obvious solution to an injury to either Blake Austin or Aidan Sezer in 2017. Baptiste absence means that Croker is now more likely to fill this spot. Stuart may again choose to play Elliot Whitehead there, but this then puts pressure on Jack Wighton to play more of a role with the boot.
It does however, remove another option that Stuart used far too much last season – moving Hodgson out from the ruck to play as a ball-running forward. We harped on this on several occasions last season, but it was beyond us why the Raiders would waste Hodgson in such a role, exposing him to injury as a battering ram against larger forwards. Stuart won’t be able to do this anymore, and this may be the only positive of this whole event.
At an organisational level it also presents a salary cap problem for the Raiders. Already at the edge of the cap, the Raiders now have to carry the dead-weight of Baptiste’s extension over what will likely be the remainder of his career, unable to fill his position with a more effective backup for Hodgson.
As you can see, the flow-on effects of Baptiste’s injury are profound and plenty. The Raiders are (obviously) by no means out of the race in 2017. They still have a litany of skilled players who did more in 2016 who will do more in 2016. But the road to glory just got that much more narrower.
 For example, NBA fans out there may notice what has happened to Wes Matthews production since his injury in 2015. It’s almost 2 years later and he’s still not regained his speed and dexterity.