The impending move of Jack Wighton from the back-house to the showroom solves one Raiders headache but creates another. Who back-fills for Wighton? Canberra doesn’t seem sure (or at least isn’t telling). The Raiders have few options, none of which are perfect. It should surprise no one that the best choice is Nic Cotric.
The choice of stability
The contenders are not plentiful. The incumbent back-up Brad Abbey is the conservative choice. As Wighton’s understudy he represents the most continuity with the 2018 regime, including allowing Nic Cotric to stay on the wing and minimising other changes. He provides some of the ball-playing that Wighton did, able to make the choice between the short and long ball as second receiver with aplomb. This is a critical part of the Raiders attack, and with Blake Austin at six it was often the only connection between the edge and the outside men.
Ball-play aside, Abbey has a couple of big weaknesses. The first is just that. Abbey is smaller in weight and power than Wighton. While his ball-playing on the edge can set his outside free, his lack of size and power means defences don’t have to honour him as a running threat. This means they can load up on the outside attackers, and consequently the Green Machine loses its incision. This happened often in the latter weeks on 2018.
His lack of running also limits one of the Raiders’ most effective collective talents: yardage work coming off their own line. Cotric, Rapana and Wighton (and occasionally Leilua) were brilliant in this regard in 2018. Rapana is injured, and with Wighton gone, Abbey is just not made to make up the difference.
Similarly Abbey won’t be able to play the spakfilla role that Wighton has often been played in the porous Raiders defensive line. Abbey missed a tackle for every two he made in 2018 (34 made, 17 missed) and he simply isn’t as physically capable in defence as Wighton. He’s not shown a particular aptitude for the high ball either, but that could be a function of experience as much as anything else.
Other options have been mentioned. According to Cotric, Michael Oldfield has spent time there during preseason. He certainly goes further to matching Wighton’s strength, and he’s a fast and powerful ball-runner. There’s no evidence he can perform the functions of a second receiver on the edge. His defence is less questionable than Abbey’s, but his best work has been on the wing rather than infield. He seems like a long shot to me.
And of course we all wait for Dylan Edwards to make the trip down to Canberra. The scuttlebutt is that money stopped that move – something that we assumed would keep him in Penrith, at least in 2019. If he ever does make come it would solve this issue.
Update: Reader Jay Bee on Facebook points out that former Rugby 7s player Bailey Simonssen has been spending time at the back in preseason. Jay says he’s a physical specimen. We will reserve any judgment until we’ve seen him on the field, but Jay is right that this is a real option.
The Development Option
In the absence of the better option, Cotric should become the first choice to replace Wighton should the latter succeed in the halves.
Cotric is a talent – there’s no doubt about that. He is among the absolute elite in the league running the ball. He breaks tackles at will (better than any in the competition) and can turn absolutely nothing into something scintillating really freaking quickly. When he’s spent time at the back, it’s been in a hnmore of traditional fullback, filling in the back-line as a damaging ball-runner. The lines he ran in this position reminded me of the lines Brett Mullins or Josh Dugan once did, with less speed and more brutality (and much less breaking in Dugan’s case).
Sidebar: I’ve been watching a lot of old football lately. One of the things I forgot is how surprisingly strong Mullins was. We all remember how he could leave the world in his wake, but Mullins had the ability to burst through tackles as well, and spent time at centre when Belcher and Hoppe were covering the other back-line positions.
He’s unquestionably a more physical defender than Abbey and the closest thing the Raiders have available. There’s no doubt he could fill the defensive line like Wighton has done whenever the Raiders defence has broken down (so, a lot).
In his brief stints at the back he’s shown he can handle the high ball well enough, and he’d get better at that with time. Time would tell if he can read the game well enough to communicate weaknesses and adjust the defensive line as the best fullbacks do. There’s nothing to suggest he can’t do these things already.
The major challenge for Cotric is in his passing and creativity. In his brief appearances in the position in first grade he’s shown that the decision making and execution of attacking movements on the edges still require development. In a brief appearance at the back in round five last year, the Raiders blew a try because his pass was a tad late and ill-directed to Elliot Whitehead. It was a reminder that those aspects of the job are harder than they seem, and that development of that skill takes time. Jack Wighton took four years to fully develop that part of his game.
Moving Cotric to the spine in the long-term is also in the interests of the Raiders. As we pointed out last year, Cotric’s talents are going to attract fullback money after his contract ends in 2020, and Canberra can ill-afford to be paying a winger/centre more than their position is worth. The options are to either bite the bullet and pay a lot for a very talented winger, or move him to fullback, and let him develop into the talent we think he could be.
Of course this is basically like starting again for the position. Four years after the Raiders started a project at the back named Jack Wighton, they’d be starting a new project with a new player.
At least in Cotric, they have a player with the talent to develop.