Nic Cotric is talented. Everyone agrees on that. But the position in which his future lies in constantly speculated across the Rugby League community.* An injury to captain Jarrod Croker and the suspension of Jack Wighton have revealed the Raiders aren’t quite sure where his best position is long-term. Down the pipeline is coming a challenge that may play a factor in where his future lies.
Cotric’s emergence came like a hurricane in 2017. His ability was so clear that Coach Stuart moved on long-time Raider, established first grader and emerging origin selectee Edrick Lee to find a place for still-a-teenager Cotric. Already his talents were forcing the Raiders to make decisions about other players.
Naturally a right-handed runner, the Raiders pinned him on the left edge out of sheer convenience. Hardly a perfect fit. But Cotric’s talent is so otherworldly he’s more than made it work. So much so he could have (should have) played Origin this year.
For many observers this has been but a pit stop on his eventual transition to fullback. Jack Wighton currently mans that position for the Green Machine.
The fullback position has evolved in recent years. Good ball-playing is now part of every elite fullback’s repertoire. Wighton has excelled effectively operating as the five-eighth on the left side of the Raiders’ attack. Up until his suspension, Wighton has been brilliant in 2018, leading the Raiders in try-assists, all the while being a robust ‘gap filler’ in defence.
Certainly Cotric has shown no difficulties slotting into the position in the two times he’s filled in. He wasn’t perfect though. Ball-play doesn’t come as naturally as running, and in round 5 the Raiders blew a try because his pass was a tad late and ill-directed to Elliot Whitehead. In round 17 his opportunities were limited as the Green Machine eschewed using him the same way they do Wighton. With Sezer and Williams in the side this seemed less necessary. Cotric instead ran the ball, only getting the ball once on a sweep movement and taking it into the line. The hard-running support lines on the inside shoulder of the second receiver were also given to right-wing (positioning not politics) Jordan Rapana instead of Cotric.**
Legal issues aside, Wighton will be around for a long time – he’s contracted until the end of 2020 (per zerotackle.com). It doesn’t seem there’s any interest from the current coaching structure in moving him on from this position.
This doesn’t mean Cotric can’t be a ball player or fill this role in the future. But it does mean that he would have to wait for an opportunity. If it came at all.
I think that Cotric projects long-term as a centre. He’s an incredible ball-runner and would fit perfectly running he ball on the right edge, fending off would be defenders with his left hand. There’s not much that current occupant BJ Leilua can do that Cotric can’t, and in all likelihood there’s be a reduction in errors, both defensive and bone-headed.***
But according to zerotackle.com, Leilua’s current contract also does not end until the 2020 season and at 26 there’s no reason to move on from him anytime soon. He has established one of the premier connections on the right wing with Jordan Rapana. His ability to effectively play as an extra forward, taking hit-ups in the middle of the park, is as underrated as it is under-appreciated. He has been one of the Raiders’ best performers in 2018, and as recently as round 19 against the Sharks did his utmost to drag them back into a game.
So even if right centre is Cotric’s best fit for his skill set it’s likely that the opportunity to play there in the long term is still years away.
Left centre is the only opportunity that has come for Cotric in the short term, but given that is usually filled by club captain Jarrod Croker (also signed through to the end of 2020) that seems like a very temporary solution. And so Cotric will remain on the wing in the foreseeable future. The Raiders will have to find creative ways to better utilise his talents.
Cotric himself is locked in to the Raiders until the end of 2020, like Leilua and Wighton who occupy the positions that he will succeed in the future.
This will create one of the good kinds of headaches for the Raiders. If he continues to improve at the rate he has since his debut last year, by 2020 his market value will be substantially more than the normal market value of a winger. He’s likely to command Jack Wighton money (reportedly 750k a year) on the open market, if not more.
Any contract Canberra sign has to be value for money for the Raiders to succeed. The Raiders already have a more difficult time than most attracting off-contract stars to the club – James Tedesco, Josh Mansour, Kevin Proctor and Michael Ennis are recent examples. Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo are leaving because the Raiders couldn’t match what they could get elsewhere. Canberra simply doesn’t offer the same opportunities for third party agreements that are available elsewhere. It’s relative even spread of payments keeps the squad talented but provides little flexibility.
Real thought will need to go into whether Cotric is worth the money of a fullback if he’s ‘only’ playing on the wing, or even right-centre. Can the Raiders be competitive paying both Wighton and Cotric ‘fullback’ money at the expense the rest of the roster? Will Leilua be with the side after 2020? Surely the Raiders would find a way to keep a sure-thing star and home-grown talent like Cotric.
The Raiders have a choice to make. They don’t have to make it today or tomorrow, but coming down the pike is the moment where they’re going to have to decide on what they want from Nic Cotric, Jack Wighton and BJ Leilua.
* and by that I mean the people I follow on twitter, the podcasts I listen to, and the people that read these pages. Good job you for being part of the community.
**although it’s worth considering that this was just a creative way to get Rapana more involved.
*** the ‘sometimes BJ gotta BJ’ errors.