The Raiders get some welcome relief when Joe Tapine returns from injury this weekend. Predicated (by ya boi) to take over the world as an edge runner this year, injuries have cursed his 2019 so far. Just where Tapine returns is still up for debate. His best position is unquestionably on the edge, but his best position for this team may be in the middle.
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart loves a smokescreen like I love Gary Belcher, but even he seems not sure as to how he’s going to use Tapine. As reported by the excellent Caden Helmers at The Canberra Times, Sticky refused to show his cards about where he saw Tapine fitting in:
“That also gives us a little bit of an opportunity to either play Taps or Hudson in the middle. At some stage they will be both on the field at the same time.”
Fitting Tapine, Young and Whitehead into two edge spots means someone is going to spend time in the middle. Young has been excellent on the left edge but as a rookie it feels like he’s the most likely to make way for Tapine to get a bit of that edge running going. Problem solved right?
Of course this would be a solution if it wasn’t for the fact that John Bateman is expected back in a few weeks. Given his performance on the right edge you’d think he waltz back into that spot, with Whitehead on the other. Now where are you putting Tapine and Young?
BJ Leilua’s injury presents an opening. Much has been made of Bateman’s versatility, and he could easily slot into the centre spot. This would allow Bateman and Tapine to occupy the same edge. The threat of Bateman using his quick feet and smart hands to unleash Tapine’s powerful running is enticing. I note this is the preferred option of Bourkey from Bourkey’s Top 10. Bourkey knows more about footy than a million Sportress articles so it’s fair to think this might be the best solution.
I have to say it would be something to ask Bateman to do this. The man has spent most of his preparation for this season getting ready to combat bigger men in the middle. Asking him suddenly to essentially deal in pace, both in attack and defence will be difficult.
And even this solution faces a problem. Nic Cotric was excellent at right centre last week, and it looks to be his best position long term (shouts to us for saying that last year). While BJ Leilua is injured, he should be given every opportunity to make this spot his own. However, Cotric is likely to miss a few games over the next few months, because he’s going to play Origin (or we are going to start a hunger strike out the front of Freddy Fittler’s house).
It seems that this mess is hardly going to resolve itself with a stable spot for Tapine on the edge. One option will be some mix of what Sticky outlined. Tapine and Young share the edge. I’m not a massive fan of that approach. I worry that changing combinations more than needed risks communication challenges in the exact defensive position where it is most critical. The Raiders worst moments in 2019 have been when injuries have meant reshuffles of their edge defence (damn you Manly!). I’d hate for Taps to come into an edge mid-way through a game, let through a try and have his confidence knocked out of him before he even got going. This approach also doesn’t provide a sustainable solution when John Bateman returns.
Playing as a middle forward looks like a much better fit for this team if not for Tapine. His powerful running and physical defence can handle minutes in the middle, and would form quite a strong middle rotation with Sutton, Papalii, Lui, Soliola, Havili and Young. It also provides the Raiders with some middle ballast when Papalii joins Cotric in the big dance of Origin. Papalii has been such a huge part of the Raiders success in 2019, and they will desperately miss his ability to turn post-contact metres as a matter of course. The aforementioned middle forwards all have their merits, but none have Papalii’s ability to absorb contact and keep going. Tapine does.
Further, Tapine has already mentioned his willingness to make this sacrifice (as reported by the brilliant Alice Newton earlier this year), so there’s no worries about a pouting player. Tapine is willing to be a part of this side.
Suddenly the Raiders are dripping in forward depth. Tapine long-term is going to tear edges to shreds in this league. But his best position for this team probably is in the middle for the time being.
It’s complicated putting this side together. When you have actual talent, it can sometimes be an issue finding space for it all on the field. People have to put egos and preferences aside for the sake of the team. It may be that Joe Tapine will be asked to do just that. I’m glad he’s ready to do what’s necessary.