If you’re after a bit of analysis of what BJ Leilua’s return will mean tactically, click here for our thoughts.
It’s hard to talk about the selection issue the Canberra Raiders are facing without slipping into cliche’s. “Best kind of problem”, “selection headache” or “enviable position” are the usual fare bandied about in this situation. Whatever you want to call it, the Raiders have it, and moreso than normal. They have too many players, not enough roster spots and no bad answers. If they can get the best out of this roster, they’ll be ready for the Roosters, Storm and Manly over the next few weeks, and beyond.
According to Dave Riccio, BJ Leilua is returning for the round 21 clash with the Roosters. That in itself would be a unique situation. It’s not often that you can add a man with the talent and skill of Leilua to a team that has won seven of their last eight games. Compounding that, New South Wales representative Nic Cotric is also available for selection after the NRL came down hard (for precisely 1 day) on tackles that put players in a dangerous position. But it doesn’t end there. Hudson Young, the rookie forward who filled in so admirably as an edge defender while both John Bateman and Joe Tapine were injured earlier in the season is rounding into match form, having played his second Mounties game in two weeks. Oh, and Ryan Sutton is due back in the coming weeks.
How Coach Ricky Stuart puts this puzzle together is an interesting question. The Raiders have played their best footy of the season in the last two weeks, and it would take a brave man to alter that. But the upside that these returning players provide could be the difference between the Raiders being the little engine that tried and the little engine that won the whole damn thing.
This is made more complex by the nature of Leilua’s absence. He hasn’t played any football since flipping April, and is coming back from a potential career-ending, not to mention life-altering, injury. I’ve said it before, but I don’t think it can be emphasised enough: the utmost care must be taken with BJ. The thinking process must focus on what is best for Leilua’s health and well-being, and that of his family, and not the Raiders season.
But if BJ is to play, are you sure he can give you 80 minutes? How else would you get him match fitness? It seems pointless to play him in Mounties. It seems risky to expect him to succeed if his first game is against the reigning premiers. Further, Jordan Rapana has only just begun to return to full fitness in recent weeks. Is it asking to much of Jordy to put a ‘struggling for match fitness’ Leilua next to him?
Fitting Cotric in is slightly more clear. There’s no injury, and he’ll likely be very keen to play. In normal circumstances (i.e. if BJ wasn’t returning), a simple exchange with Michael Oldfield would be on the cards. But if BJ is back, it seems likely that the exchange is with Bailey Simonsson on the left wing rather than Oldfield at right centre.
This is an incredible shame, and one that doesn’t recognise the importance of Simonsson to the Raiders success. Simonsson has averaged 133 metres a game, done his share and more of yardage work, and proved himself a capable finisher and defender on the wing. 13 games into his NRL career and he’s shown that he’s going to be a first grader for years to come, especially if the Raiders and Rapana aren’t able to come to terms.
There is a way that all these players fit into the same side. In the Roosters in round 9 Simonsson came off the bench, playing around the middle almost like an extra fullback or a very fast old-fashioned lock. Instead in this circumstances he may come off the bnech to play wing, allow Cotric to shift to right centre, and give Leilua the opportunity to play 40-50 minutes rather than 80 in his first week back. Leilua could also start on the bench, and could easily provide back-row minutes if they were needed too.
This is obviously not an ideal solution and a waste of a precious bench rotation but underscores how important Simonsson has been, and Leilua’s fitness will be, to the Raiders prosperity.
But this solution creates another problem. In the coming weeks Hudson Young and Ryan Sutton will return. Both players figure to play a part in the formation of the Canberra bench forward rotation. Dunamis Lui, Siliva Havili and Corey Horsburgh have all been incredible in recent weeks. Lui is a rock for the defence. Havili brings flexibility, and as esteemed rugby league mind David Bourke has pointed out, his interplay with Hodgson smartly allows the English rake to play off the ball, adding another facet to the Raiders attack. Horsburgh has been much improved too, adding a game as a connecting pass through the middle on sweep movements to his more brawn-based escapades. So if you take one spot away from the bench and carry an extra back, you’re trying to fit Sutton, Havili, Lui, Horsburgh and Hudson into three spots. It’s hard enough trying to find the best four of that group.
If you pressed me into a position I’d want to give BJ another week or so to be 150% sure about his neck. Nic Cotric must be in any Raiders side he’s available for. I’d play Cotric at centre in the meantime, and bring Young back for Guler now, and Sutton for Young when he’s healthy. For me Young has proven a capable defender and his quick feet at the line are underrated. But his skill set mirrors John Bateman and Elliot Whitehead, and well, they’re already amazing and don’t need to spend any time on the bench. Sutton and Horsburgh are both an important physical presence in the middle, and combining them with The Rock (Lui) and A Hard Place (Havili) gives the Raiders flexibility and power off their bench. Simonsson may miss out, but I have a suspicion his role in this 2019 run is not over.
There is no ideal solution. If you kept Bailey in there and let BJ wait I’d understand. If you said to Sutton and Young to earn your way back then that would make sense too. The complexity around BJ’s health and match fitness make it hard to include him without reservation. However, if the Raiders are serious about trying to win the premiership, it’s more likely to happen with a healthy and match fit BJ Leilua than it isn’t, so working him back in should be a priority. The choice between bench forwards is borderline impossible, and may be better determined by match-ups than by a fixed approach.
All we know at this stage is that the Raiders have around 21 quality first grade players and only 17 positions to fit them into. It’s a stark contrast to previous years, though at this stage almost everything that has occurred in 2019 is too. Good teams have more people than spots, and the Raiders look able to handle (almost) any roster changes that may be forced on them (*knocks on wood like a maniac*).
It’s a good problem to have.
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