It’s a truism if Rugby League that the key to success is the skill and stability of the spine. The forwards lay the platform, the backs provide the excitement, but the spine is named as such because it connects all the parts. Talent is critical at these positions; but talent still needs time to build familiarity and relationships.
Jack Wighton’s pending move to five-eighth has presented the Canberra Raiders spine with a challenge that it has failed to solve all offseason. There are many options available to Coach Stuart. Our personal choice was Nic Cotric, for money and talent reasons. Brad Abbey is theoretically the incumbent, and word is Michael Oldfield has spent time training there. Bailey Simonsson is an intriguing, high risk/reward option too.
As far as we can tell (and let’s be clear, we have not seen a moment of offseason training; nor do we have any sources inside the Raiders) none of these gentlemen is seen as a satisfactory option by the coaching staff. It was recently noted to the always excellent Alicia Newton that the Raiders see Cotric as a long-term winger. Michael Oldfield was mentioned in passing in the same way I’d talk about a vegetarian restaurant (“oh yeah, it’s definitely AN option”) and Abbey showed in 2018 that he’s a long way from a sure starter in 2019. Simonsson has been presented very much as a smoky; an unquestionable talent, but an undeveloped one.
Sidebar: if Ricky wants to keep Nic at the wing the Raiders are either going to say goodbye to him, or be overpaying a winger. Neither option is palatable.
This uncertainty around the current options is part of the reason the Raiders have added Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to this mix (the desperate need for backs depth is certainly a major factor too). All reports are that Nicoll-Klokstad is a talented outside back who can fill multiple positions in the backline. I haven’t seen enough of Nicoll-Klokstad (he’s only played 7 first grade games), but the YouTube clips floating about (shouts to the Green Machine Podcast) show a strong ball runner with a devastating right-foot step and some handy ball skills, something confirmed by Jordan Rapana recently.
It seems adding Nicoll-Klokstad is a boon for the Raiders and a feather in the cap of list manager Peter Mulholland. The Green Machine had little cap space, and Mulholland made it sing.
But it also highlights that the Raiders still haven’t settled on a first-string fullback. You might remember the last time the Raiders got this late in the preseason without a solution at such an important spot. It was last year when Josh Hodgson was missing, and Coach Stuart forced the square peg of Aidan Sezer into a hole he wasn’t meant for.
All through that summer it seemed that Stuart hadn’t quite decided how to fill Hodgson’s absence. Siliva Havili and Craig Garvey were brought in. There were rumours of Blake Austin filling the spot. Sezer was plugged into the position mere weeks from the season. It was a disrupted preparation and resulted in an attack that drastically slowed around the ruck when Sezer was in the middle.
Sezer was plainly not a nine. He stood up to pass on every play, slowing down the ruck. Connections with the forwards were stilted and the Raiders vaunted pack struggled. It was never clear how he, Williams and Austin all fit together. I doubt Sezer would have ever made it in the middle, but a bit more preparation may have resulted in quicker service and a spine that functioned.
I see similarities in the questions being asked in right now. The Raiders should have settled on a hooker before February of 2018, and they are losing precious time in February 2019 to settle on a fullback. Each contender would benefit from time to form a stable part of the spine, to address specific weaknesses in their game. Cotric needs to work out the second-man attack. Abbey needs practice under the high ball. Oldfield….well I dunno. Simonsson needs time too. All need work connecting with Jack on his outside shoulder. For their own sake as well as Wighton’s.
The Raiders would benefit from certainty at the back. The season is just around the corner and thry can ill afford a slow start to the season while the spine builds. Stuart needs to make a choice soon.
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