“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.” — my dude T.S. Eliot
The fever dream of many a Raiders fan will become real when Jack Wighton returns from suspension. Instead of returning as custodian, the Daily Telegraph has reported that Jack Wighton will return at five-eighth. The Canberra Raiders are taking a big risk to find out far they can go.
This is an exciting move. For some time the Raiders have struggled to find fluency and effectiveness across their spine. Wighton provides the balance and the talent that could be the circuit breaker to the decades of flawed halves pairings.
The only offical tape we have that Jack Wighton can play this role is his unsuccessful time there in 2014. Then he appeared overwhelmed in the position. After four years of developing him into an elite fullback he is being moved to an arguably harder position. He has matured as a footballer since his last time in the halves, spending much of the last two years effectively operating what we called ‘split five-eighths’ with Blake Austin. So he’s performed the role on a much smaller level and that should provide some grounding to expand from this time around. But there is no pretending – this is asking a huge amount from Wighton.
The case for Wighton moving into the halves is not complicated. For some time he has been one of the Raiders most effective ball-players. Despite only playing 13 games in 2018, he provided 11 try-assists (third most in the side). These mostly occurred operating as second receiver and making a relatively simple run/pass choice. This decision was made easier by the extra time given to him by defenders wary of his strong running game. In the video below we can see Wighton take on the line before dropping a good short ball to Croker. The only difficulty he faces in this decision is to pass short or long. It has taken nearly four years for him to develop this skill, but it has been well worth it, and he has been remarkably effective in this role.
Wighton provides balance next to Aidan Sezer and Josh Hodgson: a clear delineation of roles between organising half, creative hooker and secondary playmaker.
Moving Wighton into the halves would also provide another good defender across the front line of the Raiders defence. In recent times teams have made their bones attacking Canberra on the edges, and putting Wighton there would be another step to rectifying these issues.
But this move is rife with risk.
For starters there is a very big difference between being a ball-playing fullback and a full-time five-eighth. The run/pass decisions that Wighton has excelled at are much simpler than what he’ll face as a primary ball-player. As a permanent second receiver he will still get to make that ‘run/pass’ decision on sweeping movements, but more will now be expected. Rather than inserting himself when the Green Machine is already in attacking mode, it will be now be on Wighton to create in less favourable situations.
In addition, Wighton will be required to perform the more non-creative role that all halves have to do: organising the side and understanding the tempo of a game. This is probably Sam Williams’ best skill, and isn’t something that is quickly learned.
His kicking game will he tested, and suddenly Sezer goes from often kicking to always kicking. Hodgson will carry even more responsibility for creativity in the opponents 20, and if his short kicking game isn’t perfect I’m not convinced Wighton can cover the gap.
While Wighton will definitely provide a more robust defensive presence than Williams, his presence on the edge is unlikely to solve the systematic issues that have plagued Canberra over recent years. As we outlined in last years season review, while the edges were the focus of opposition attack, they collapsed in part because the middle of the park was overwhelmed. Individual errors definitely played a role – just ask Blake Austin – but unless the changes to the forward pack result in faster line-speed and better control of the middle, Wighton’s impact will be limited.
It also ignores the human spak-filler role that Wighton already plays in the Raiders defence. More often than not he fills into the line to rectify the errors of others, before disappearing back to his position. Whoever fills in will have their work cut out doing this as well as he did. Raiders defenders may be surprised in 2019 when there is no support for them.
Another problem is that there is no other quality fullback on the roster. Brad Abbey has shown some promise, but was physically outmatched in his appearances last year. Nic Cotric was big enough, but doesn’t yet have the ball-playing skill to fill the role Canberra needs at the back. It may be decided Cotric is the long-term number one, but it took four years to turn Wighton into an elite fullback. It may take another four to do the same for Cotric. Of course this may be fixed if Dylan Edwards arrives at the team, but as I said here, I remain sceptical that this rumour will play out.
This is not to say that Wighton can’t do it. His game has improved so rapidly over the last two years that it wouldn’t surprise me if he made this leap. But one cannot pretend this won’t be a Herculean task. He’s a devastating ball-runner and this alone will be enough to provide him an ‘out’ to all the difficult decisions he has to make. But if that’s all he becomes, then he’ll become a slightly better Blake Austin, and that may not be enough for Canberra to cross the Rubicon into the finals.
For Coach Stuart it shows after two seasons out of the finals, he is willing to take a risk to get back to the promised land. This can be interpreted multiple ways. You can either see this as a calculated risk, or the panicked move of a man who knows he has no other option but to take a flyer. Either way Stuart, and by extension the Raiders, are laying it on the line before 2019 starts. There will be no argument they didn’t investigate every option come end of the year.
It’s also an admission that he doesn’t think they are good enough with Sam Williams and Aidan Sezer in the halves. Since early 2018 when Blake Austin was relegated to the bench, the Raiders were hoping that this halves combination was good enough to take them to the finals. By moving Wighton into the halves, Stuart is in effect saying they no longer believe this. It may be hard to go back to Williams should Wighton flame out.
2019 is now finals or bust, and Jack Wighton has been given the keys and told to take us there. It’s a big risk, but I guess this is how the Raiders are going to find out whether they, and more importantly, Wighton are good enough.
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