A Test of Depth

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders got bad news on a Wednesday night when James Hooper reported on NRL360 that BJ Leilua may require neck surgery. This would possibly put him out for the rest of the season.

This is compounds an already bad trot the Raiders have had lately. John Bateman is already going to be missing for at least six weeks with a fractured eye socket. Jordan Rapana is touch and go for the magic round against the Roosters. Then there is the fact that a thumb and ankle injuries have ruined Joe Tapine’s start to 2019. And if his Instagram account is anything to go by, Jack Murchie is going to be spending a bunch of time of the sidelines with what looks like a broken arm.

Each of these injuries is painful in its own right. Joe Tapine, already an international, seemed primed to have a breakout year after an encouraging end to 2018. He still may have a big impact for the Raiders this season, but he’ll be starting mid-way through the year, with potentially a different (central? bench?) role. It’s a tough blow to take.

In Tapine’s absence John Bateman has made it clear he was best placed on an edge. He’s been the find of the NRL season (with the possible exception of Charnze Nicole-Klokstad), providing incredible defence on the right edge, and quick feet in the line. In comparison to the Tapine and Leilua injuries, his six-to-eight week spell seems small, but will still be keenly felt.

Leilua’s injury feels unfair. a bulging disc in his neck will require surgery and keep him out a very long time, possibly even the rest of the season. According to NRLPhysio on twitter, the bulging disc in his neck is like a result of wear and tear. One game short of a nice milestone and his career catches up to him.

Leilua provides so much for the Raiders. There’s the showy stuff we all notice – his ability with Jordan Rapana to create points from thin air with improvisation. His powerful edge running that turned the Broncos game on its head. But he’s so much more than that for the Green Machine. In 2019 done very bit of dirty work Canbrrra has needed, be it the dirty yardage carry, or helping John Bateman cover for Sam Williams’ size disadvantage. The last 8 weeks of Leilua’s career have been as good as he’s played, and should have earned him a representative call up if he’d kept it going over the near future. Alas, fate can be a fuckhead.

Collectively these problems create an even bigger set of issues for the Raiders.

Firstly you may notice something about all these injuries: they all impact the Raiders’ right edge. Tapine and BJ, and then BJ and Bateman were meant to be the only members of the right edge this year. Even Murchie would have likely been cover for the right. Now the Raiders will probably move Whitehead to cover for Bateman/Tapine, and move Oldfield into Leilua’s spot. Oldfield can’t provide what BJ does. He’ll hit the line with fury – you will remember when he ran through the Cowboys last year. But he doesn’t have the ability to create something from nothing, nor the ability to send defenders flying like ten-pins. His defence isn’t anywhere near as physical, and in covering for Williams he’ll have to avoid the tendency he displayed on Saturday to slide before the ball had passed him. But it’s as good a solution as exists in the NRL for squad depth.

This is further compounded by the less severe injury to Jordan Rapana. In the victory over the Panthers the new combination of Whitehead/Oldfield/Simonsson held firm, despite having some hairy moments – a spilled bomb, a few line breaks. But it will be a surprise if they can be similarly successful against the rampant Roosters left edge.

And then there’s the matter of what happens if there’s another injury, particularly to Oldfield? Before his injury one may have argued that Bateman could fill in at centre, as he did for a period in the Manly game. But now the depth chart looks sparse. Many would suggest moving Cotric across, but after witnessing his combination with Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker on both sides of the ball last week, I’d argue against splitting up the Raidera most effective offensive combinations. Cotric is also critical for yardage work in set starts – something that is harder to do when your retreating from the defensive line rather than already at the back to receive kicks.

Another issue is more simple than combinations. The ability of Tapine, Bateman and Leilua to break tackles is a key part of Canberra’s ability to sustain an undersized pack. With Josh Papalii, their ability to break a tackle has been critical to gaining quick rucks. Papalii does it because runs with a power few can match. Bateman does it because his quick feet at the line mean tacklers are never quite getting all of him. Tapine and BJ are on the spectrum in between those two, mixtures of power and pace that can turn the most disadvantageous set start into a rolling set. They will he missed.

This problem is exacerbated when Papalii goes on Origin duty. Bateman should be back during this period, but absence of these other players will be felt dearly.

This is a real problem for the Raiders. Missing John Bateman for six weeks was always going to be a challenge. Missing Tapine for 10 weeks makes it harder to cover for Bateman. And missing Leilua for the season will have a huge impact.

They showed last weekend that they’re up for the challenge, and with the young stars like Young, Guler and Murchie coming through there’s enough bench depth to cover the back row at least. But in the long burn of an NRL season this will undoubtedly be a real test of depth.


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