The Focus On Seven

BY DAN

The Raiders received a bit of bad news on Thursday night, with halfback Aidan Sezer being ruled out. Sam Williams will take his place, and that will have ramifications for the Knights game. Oddly many Raiders’ fans rejoiced. Some even suggested the injury was a smokescreen for him being dropped in favour of Sam Williams. Many of these people think Sezer’s performance (or lack thereof) is the key determinant when the Raiders fail.

First let’s quickly talk about what Sezer’s loss means for the Raiders for round three. In attack Williams’ best games in recent years have come when he takes on, or threatens to take on the line. in 2018 his willingness to do this varied from game to game, and consequently so did his effectiveness. His kicking game is almost always excellent, and I have a suspicion his connection with Hodgson and Wighton will be marginally smoother than the clunky effort from last week, though that will be as much opposition as personnel.

The major impact is defensively. Sezer has been robust defender for the entirety of his stay in Canberra. His edge has generally been the strongest Canberra edge (which admittedly is kinda like being the smartest idiot), to the extent that the precise Storm deliberately targeted the side opposite to him last week. Williams is small, and Mata’utia, Fitzgibbon, Guerra and Barnett are not. When Williams played in 2018, sides used his edge as a fail safe, an easy way to get rolling whenever a set stalled. It will likely make a big day of work for Elliot Whitehead to keep him clean.

But more than just tomorrow, what I’m interested in is why some Raiders’ supporters are so negatively focused on Sezer. There’s a range of factors for this. Sezer hasn’t lived up to the expectations put on him in his transfer from the Titans to Canberra. The presence of a competent backup in the form of Sam Williams, a local to boot, surely plays into a tendency to look at Sezer with fault on the mind.

But the contributing factor that most interests me is the tendency we have to weigh the contributions of halfbacks too greatly.

The thing is that Aidan Sezer is not the key factor in whether the Raiders win or lose. The mobile forward pack determine that. The creativity of Josh Hodgson does that. Jack Wighton’s development as a ball-player will be important. Whoever wears the seven jersey for the Raiders has to make his tackles, kick to the corners, connect with the right edge, and occasionally threaten the line enough that Wighton has a bit of space to work. Sezer is more than capable in this regard. Occasionally he can almost single-handedly win a game (see round five 2018) but more often than not that comes down to what the players around him do.

This isn’t unique to the Raiders. More and more sides are moving away from a seven being the dominant ball-player. The model of creative nine, ball-running six and kicking half isn’t unique to Canberra. For example, the Storm and the Bunnies have perfected this model.

Sezer also isn’t the first halfback to be the focal point of fan ire. Mitchell Pearce was blamed for the Roosters failure to win a competition while he was there. Daly Cherry-Evans is blamed for Manly losses, when it’s really the horrendous roster around him (though that’s his fault in a roundabout way because of his salary). The Eels blame Mitchell Moses for having an undersized and ineffective pack. Any halfback that played for New South Wales between 2006 and 2014 was blamed for being inept when they simply weren’t as good as possibly the greatest rugby league team ever (non 1994 Raiders edition).

This focus can work in success too. Cooper Cronk was lauded for his courage in the 2018 grand final, but his contribution to the game was marginally beyond minimal. That ‘chip was owned by Luke Keary, who may have won the Clive Churchill but not the narrative. The Raiders had their own version for many years, when visiting commentators who paid little attention to the Canberra side would unquestionably praise Josh McCrone.

So why this over emphasis of the importance of the halfback?

My hunch is that it’s a historical hangover. For so long the seven touched the ball multiple times in a set. The first receiver was not just a connection to the backs, but often was responsible for identifying forwards to take runs. Old Raiders games show Ricky Stuart playing this role, but you can find any old footage of halves from years past handling the ball on nearly every play, as opposed to the comparatively sparing involvement of some modern versions. Hookers back then mostly took some runs and passed to the halfback.

As such our rugby league watching ‘gaze’ has fixated on the halfback. So now when a halfback is a part of the machine rather than the master of it, we criticise them.

So no, Aidan Sezer is not the key to the Raiders success. And him missing won’t be the reason the Raiders win or lose. Sam Williams will not doubt perform his role well: kick to the corners, and (hopefully) make effective tackles. And if the Raiders win it will probably be less about him and more about everyone else.


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