Blake Austin and the Return of Joy

BY DAN

Surprising no-one who saw him interviewed after his match winning turn against the Bulldogs, Blake Austin announced that he would be leaving the Canberra Raiders and the National Rugby League for the Warrington Wolves of the English Super League.

Austin has been somewhat a polarising figure for the Raiders. Many have seen the brilliant ball-running and wanted him to take a bigger role in the side. Others (like these pages) have focused the defensive deficiencies, and the inability to do more with his passing and kicking and wished he’d found a way to be more than just a runner.

Regardless of your view, there are few that would argue that in full-flight, there has rarely been a player more fun to watch.

***

Part of comprehending why Austin has been so important to the Canberra Raiders is understanding where the organisation was when he got there.

Austin 2015 2

The end of 2014 was a dark time for the Raiders. The Terry Campese era, sputtering over the previous few years, had collapsed with Campo’s knees. The promise of the next generation had walked out the door in the form of Anthony Milford. Jilted by James Tedesco, Kevin Proctor, Josh Mansour and Michael Ennis, the Raiders were finding it hard to attract the talent to match that which had left. Things were bad, and it seemed they were not going to get better quickly.

Into this darkness walked Blake Austin. Barely 24 years old, he had struggled to find a permanent spot for the Wests Tigers. They’d tried him at almost every position in the backline before settling on a bench position. The promise of a full-time role as the Raiders’ five-eighth no doubt part of the allure of the national capital.

He was an almost immediate success, working firstly with Mitch Cornish as his halves partner, then later with Sam Williams when Cornish was punted by Coach Stuart (NB:I am still cranky about this). It was clear he had defensive issues early on – at the time we wrote that your mum could make a break through the Raiders’ right edge. But those were less important than what he did with ball in hand. When he carried the ball, when he stepped of either foot, there was excitement again. The Raiders hadn’t lost their flamboyance with Campo’s cartlidge or Anthony’s abandonment. They had themselves a rolled-gold piece of talent.

He was dominant for the first two-thirds of the season. Teams were completely befuddled by his step (mostly off his right foot), and it lead to 13 tries, six try-assists and five games with 100 plus all-run metres through the the first 18 weeks.

Austin 2015

And everyone stood up and noticed. As a Canberra fan it can feel like the Green Machine is too often ignored by a Sydney based media. Blake drew everyone’s attention – to the extent that we implored people to notice that hey, this Josh Hodgson character was actually quite good too.  For the first time since Terry Campese took fire to the world in 2008 and 2010, people outside of Canberra were talking about the Raiders.

As late as Round 14 the Green Machine were in the top 8. We were asking “are the Raiders actually good?” The idea that they might actually play finals footy no longer seemed like the green-eyed delusion it had seemed before the season. At the centre of this was Austin, hot-stepping his way through defensive lines towards the Dally M Five-Eighth of the year.

Teams began to plan for Austin. They saw the breathtaking step, the hard running, and they took it away. They forced Austin to create with his ball-play. For a guy that had been playing full-time five-eighth for less than season there was no surprise this skill was undeveloped. Over the last seven weeks of the competition he had 1 try, 2 try-assists and only 1 game of 100 plus metres.

So Austin slowed, and so did the Raiders. They missed out on the 8, in what we considered an example of how ‘unlucky’they were.

Before and after round 1 of the 2016 season, Austin and his new halves partner Aidan Sezer were being touted as the potential State of Origin partnership for New South Wales. It’s as amazing as it sounds in retrospect, as much a reflection of some difficult times for the Blues as it was Austin’s exciting 2015.

The lesson of 2015 was that for Austin to continue his trajectory to being an elite half, he would need to better develop his passing and defensive games. Too often with the ball he either ran straight and didn’t pass, or ran at the corner posts when he did pass. There was no in-between, no variety.  He could either pass or run, but it was rare to see him do both.

His defence had become more of an issue as teams began to load up against his edge. He continued to improve his one-on-one tackling, but a bigger problem was his decision-making and communication with the men around him.

He never managed to develop his ball playing in any meaningful sense. Over the next three seasons he had 4, 7 and 5* try assists. That’s less than any Jack Wighton season in that period, and less than even BJ Leilua in 2016 and 2017. And though he clearly worked on his defence, the Raiders right edge was never safe while he was there (though it’s hardly been safe without him).

That’s not to say he didn’t show flashes of what could be. One of my favourite Austin performances was in round 21 last season, setting up three tries in the first half as the Raiders dominated South Sydney. For that night at least, Austin threatened with both his passing and running, and seemed to have had a breakthrough. Maybe there was an elite half after all? Sadly, it wasn’t to last.

austin

In 2018 we have seen the best and the worst of Austin within weeks of each other. He’s never found a way to become an effective ball player. Good sides have targeted him with such ruthless efficiency he has become a liability. Against Brisbane he showed his defensive decision making has failed to improve. On occasions his defensive efforts – such as his attempts to bring down Alex Johnstonand Cody Walker close to the line in round 7 – were so embarrassing they made Bryce Cartwright wince. You can watch that video here if you dare.

So many questions remain unanswered about Austin’s tenure. His flaws are an indictment of the Raiders coaching staff as much a Austin. Did they try to fix his defensive issues? Why couldn’t they make him a well-rounded half? Why did they offer him 700k a year in 2017 when it was clear these issues existed, and then allow him to walk free in 2018? The player had barely changed. What changed inside the club? Was it simply a matter of trying to improve Austin, with 2018 being the point they gave up on him? Do they have a plan post-Austin? Because Sam Williams is a good footy player, but he doesn’t fix the problems that Austin posed.

Evidently the rest of the NRL gave up on Austin too. It’s been a surprise to see no one in the NRL willing to take a risk on developing him. Perhaps he is asking too much money, perhaps the clubs see the job as too hard. But one can’t help but think what a coach like Craig Bellamy would be able to extract from Austin.

I think Austin will return to the NRL before long, if only because the less physically demanding and less sophisticated attacks of the Super League will be better for his defensive liabilities. Maybe when he returns he would have had the time and space to become more complete as a ball-player.

***

The brilliant performance by Austin on the weekend was a reminder that in trying to improve him we had forgotten what made him great. That ball-running, that side-step. They brought relevance and joy to the Raiders in 2015, and for that we should all be grateful.

*Inclusive of Saturday’s win of the Bulldogs I have him roughly on track for 7 try assists in 2018.

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