Ata Hingano is starting at halfback for Tonga against the Kangaroos this Saturday. It is the biggest test of his short career to date, and one of few opportunities the Raiders have had to see him in proper football since he joined them. Before a packed house in Auckland, Hingano will be playing for his country, but also for an opportunity to be a first-string first-grader in 2019.
The Raiders search for a halves partner for Aidan Sezer officially only started this off-season. Theoretically Blake Austin and Sam Williams filled the position in 2018. But if it wasn’t clear before the season, it became obvious as the season rolled on that neither represented a complete solution that the Raiders needed. Both offered different advantages – Williams an exceptional organiser, Austin a brilliant ball-runner. Both also were flawed defenders. Williams was smart enough but physically a weak link that was exploited on Canberra’s edge. Austin had the opposite problem.
These incomplete solutions have led the Raiders back to asking the question of who will line-up alongside Aidan Sezer in 2019. Sam Williams is surely the clubhouse leader, although much conjecture has been made of the potential of Jack Wighton shifting to six. Williams is a known quantity, as much as Wighton’s legal problems, and previous experience at six, make him unknown.
Sidebar: We outlined the case for Wighton at six here. It’s actually pretty compelling. He’s the Raiders most effective ball-player at second receiver. He’s an effective defender, and in 2018 he seemed to remove the errors that plagued his game in previous years. The risk is removing him from the position of custodian he is busy becoming elite at.
To date Hingano hasn’t really had a shot at the position. He joined the Raiders in February of 2018, well after the Raiders had decided upon their spine for the season (which inexplicably included shifting their best half to backup hooker but I digress). While Austin and Williams failed to shine, Hingano wasn’t trusted with the keys to the Red Bull F1 car (fast, powerful, unreliable) that was the Raiders 2018 team. Instead he whittled away his season taking over from Sezer as back-up hooker, a position he was awful at, because, you know, not a hooker. Then he suffered a season ending injury, and all his 2018 would result in was a single try-assist, a meagre 22 metres a game, and 90 tackles over 9 games. Nothing was ventured in Hingano’s play, and we learnt nothing about whether he can organise, kick, create or, god forbid, provide adequate edge defence.
It was a strategic error from coach Stuart. It was clear to anyone with eyes that Hingano wasn’t a hooker. But it’s possible he is the future in the halves (it’s also as likely he’s not). He’s shown a willingness and a capability in the past his international opportunities for Tonga, but it’s hardly enough game-tape to form a strong opinion.
Perhaps because Hingano is only 21, Stuart felt that he had time to test the waters in later years. Unfortunately the Raiders weakness at six remains, and Stuart has wasted time finding out Hingano was a viable option. The Raiders are now turning the corner to start the 2019 campaign and whatever window they had opened in 2016 is on its last legs. If this team doesn’t win now it will never win. They are missing key information on whether Hingano is first-grade quality half. So this weekend takes on extra significance.
It’s an opportunity for Hingano to throw his hat in the ring to contribute now. He’ll be in a relatively familiar position, working with a good forward pack and a halves partner (Tui Lolohea) he has played alongside on a few occasions for Tonga, as well as Raiders teammate Siliva Havili at rake.
If Hingano can provide direction for the forward pack, kick well and provide organisation for the backline then it could raise an eyebrow or two in Canberra. If he can provide adequate edge defence against some of the best edge ball-runners in the NRL it might give Stuart the good kind of selection headache. Either way it’s going to be a big test.
Do us a solid and like our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or share this on social media. Don’t hesitate to send us feedback (thesportress at gmail dot com) or comment below if you think we are stupid. Or if we’re not.