The Missing Link

BY DAN

Last week the Canberra Raiders finalised two key signings, with both Aidan Sezer and Josh Papalii extending their respective stays in the nations’ capital. With other key players like Josh Hodgson, Jack Wighton and others locked in beyond this season, the squad of the future has taken shape. One hole remains though, and there is no clarity around who will be the Raiders five-eighth in the future.

This question is prompted by the Raiders’ reported disinterest in retaining Blake Austin. The Green Machine’s backroom has cooled on Austin over 2018, despite reportedly offering him an exorbitant two-year, 1.4m as recently as last year.

The hard-stepping playmaker backed himself to earn a more bountiful return in 2018 but hasn’t lived up to that. Rumours abound that the Raiders have told him he’s not wanted in 2018, and the Storm are knocking at his door.

So what are the options available to the Raiders to fill this position?

The Incumbent: Blake Austin

Austin himself is still a possibility if he’s willing to accept a substantial pay cut. He offers a strong step off his right and useful support-play around the ruck. Against the Tigers last week Raiders fans saw his best work in attack, running support lines in and around the ruck. His defence has actually improved in recent months, particularly in one-on-one tackles. His decisions remain troubling, and if it took four years to fix his tackling then it may take longer to fix his positional play.

Austin
Austin is on the outer

Oppositions know he is a weakness. Each week attacks precisely target his position in the line and try to force him to make a decision, banking that he’ll get one wrong eventually.

His ball-playing ability is limited by his inability to pass at the advantage line outside of set plays. This makes his ball-play one dimensional, overly-reliant on a big right-foot step that rarely fools studious defenders. In 2018 he’s largely been kept on one side of the field as part of the Raiders ‘split five-eighths’ approach with Jack Wighton.

Austin’s kicking game is limited to bombs, which are more about brutal height than positioning.

Austin can fill this position and he is a known quantity. If the Raiders think their future attack can be driven by the creativity of Josh Hodgson, the organisation of Aidan Sezer and the second-receiver work of Wighton and Austin, then he may be a perfect fit in attack. But it seems the camps are very far apart right now.

The Heir Apparent: Jack Wighton

Think Laurie Daley or Darren Lockyer moving to the halves.

Wighton’s been officially tried (and failed pretty miserably) at six in the past. When he was tried there in 2014, he was younger, had trouble with the key-decisions and didn’t have a kicking game or the support players in his spine that could help him survive this role. Up until this year he still had too many errors in his game – in 2017 he had the 4th most in the competition with 35. But he’s removed that problem from his game, with only 9 errors through 14 rounds in 2018.

wighton
Wighton is an intriguing option

Wighton has effectively been supporting Austin as a five-eighth already in 2018. Operating mostly on the left, his decision-making as a second receiver has been exemplary. The simplified options facing him – take on the line or choose Croker or Cotric to receive the ball – have been the Raiders most effective attacking movement this season – his nine try assists lead the side in 2018. He is a brutal ball-runner and almost impossible to take down close to the line. A better ball-runner, a better defender and a better ball-player than Austin, his upside would be high quality and if you squint you could see him as a proper half in the future.

His defence, as always, has been physical, and would be able to handle the extra defensive load. If there’s a criticism of it it’s that he sometimes is in the wrong place at the wrong time for kicks, but that obviously won’t be an issue in the halves.

Moving Wighton to six would be the wet dream of many who see Nic Cotric as the long-term solution at fullback too. This would allow the Raiders to take more advantage of half-breaks in the middle, an ability that has been lessened by pushing Wighton’s focus wide of the ruck.

Wighton definitely has the talent to be the Raiders’ six of the future but it’s not clear it’s his best position. Not only could it potentially weaken the Raiders at the back – Cotric’s ball-playing as a second receiver still requires development – but it could dent the confidence Wighton has built in recent seasons and take him away from where he is comfortable.

What we’ve learnt from 2018 is that he can operate effectively as a second receiver, but it takes a brave person to say he could operate and create as first receiver and split a side with halfback Aidan Sezer. Again, given the ball dominance of Josh Hodgson and Aidan Sezer this might not be a problem though. Operating as the ‘third’ ball-player behind Hodgson and Sezer may be perfect for the Raiders, and avoid a ‘too many cooks’ situation.

The Veteren Presence: Sam Williams

Sam Williams already provides the Raiders cover at five-eighth and is with the side in 2019. At stages of 2018 Coach Stuart has preferred him to Austin and Sezer in the halves, and he is an effective game manager. He’s not speedy, nor a strong ball runner, but he is the smartest rugby league player to come through the Raiders’ ranks since Ricky Stuart. His biggest weakness is that when teams don’t respect his run, he can become a sideways connection and nothing more. In defence he is small and, despite his effort and willingness, is a target for opposition runners.

He is a useful depth, but as a five-eighth he is a placeholder, but cannot be the long-term solution for the Raiders if they view themselves a contender.

The Youth Movement: Ata Hingano and Paul Roache

Ata Hingano’s year has been horrific, ruined by Coach Stuart’s mind-bending desire to force the young talent to play anywhere but where he’s comfortable. It’s impossible to tell if he could be a long term solution in the halves because he hasn’t played a moment in that position in first grade. No doubt his confidence has suffered, and reports of his performance for Mounties last weekend suggest he has struggled, possibly because of that. An upside choice, it would make sense to actually give him a chance to establish himself as a half for the Raiders.

Likewise, Paul Roache has had many plaudits as a talented half, but given his age (only 19 – like Nic Cotric!) he is unlikely to be the solution in 2019.

The Reclamation Project

Of course the Raiders may look beyond their internal pathways to find their solution at six. Corey Norman is the name that gets bandied around, because he was brought to the Eels by then Coach Stuart, but also because he is on the outer with the hierarchy at Parramatta due to some questionable life choices outside of footy.

Norman is also being chased by the Cowboys

As a fit Norman would be intriguing. A talented ball-player he has thrived when he is the focal point of the attack. He has failed to connect with the ball-dominant Mitchell Moses since the former moved over from the Tigers in 2017, and looked briefly revitalised in Moses’ absence last Thursday. He would run into similar problems at the Raiders, as both halfback Aidan Sezer and hooker Josh Hodgson would get their hands on the ball before Norman.

Price matters here. Norman is allegedly currently on 900k a year at the Eels. The Raiders cannot afford to spend that much on someone who would be a questionable fit.

The Unlikely Man Out: Te Maire Martin

Reportedly the other team with interest in Corey Norman is the North Queensland Cowboys. This might make Te Maire Martin pliable from his contract (which ends at the end of next season).

At only 22 years old he has oodles of potential and would be a good fit in the Raiders spine. Martin is less ball dominant than Norman, a great runner and an improving ball-player. His defence is superior to all options outside of Wighton.

But alas, that contract.

All Upside: Kane Elgey

Rumours had it that Elgey toured the Raiders’ facilities recently. He’s been in and out of the Titans team this year, and is leaving because they effectively chose Tyrone Peachey over him.

At only 24 he’s talented, has a good kicking game and has shown glimpses of ball playing ability when he’s been healthy. His defence can be suspect – much like a Williams he’s a victim of size – and his injury history would make this a true gamble.

Price and youth are to his advantage here. Elgey would likely be cheap, an all upside risk that wouldn’t hurt the Raiders if it didn’t come off.

***

None of these options are perfect and carry with them risks and reward. This is a difficult decision and I cannot see a clear or obvious choice. Making this decision will inevitably create waves, either by forcing established players to move position (or clubs), or bring on board less than perfect options from outside the club. Coach Stuart and recruitment manager Peter Mulholland will have a hard road ahead. Here’s hoping they canvass all the options.

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