It’s been a tough time to be a Canberra Raiders fan.
Managing the feelings we have all felt because of the grand final is one thing, but the spanners being thrown into the works by player agents is a whole other.
Recently Jack Wighton joined John Bateman (which we wrote about here) in opening the door for more money. Jack’s agent waited until after grand final but this is more a function of the capital he’s built in that period. Adding Clive Churchill recipient and Australian representative to Origin winner is worth money. It led Jack to turn down a player option for 750k that exists for 2021 in order to get what he believes he’s worth.
Sidebar: Jack’s agent reportedly said “when he signed the original contract he wasn’t playing for NSW or Australia and he hadn’t won the Clive Churchill medal” as his justification of this. True, and Jack is right to ‘strike while the iron’s hot’. But it’s funny the agent used this to justify an increase in pay. It is also an argument for how he’s been overpaid for the entirety of his existing contract.
The reality is Jack is going nowhere. Like Bateman he’s contracted to Canberra for next year, and is similarly seeking to secure his future while his value as a player is at it’s highest. He’s been clear about the loyalty he has to Stuart, who went in to bat for him after his off-field dramas last year, and has always been his biggest supporter. In all likelihood he’ll be signed to an extension to end of 2023, for somewhere in the 850k plus vicinity. John Bateman will be upgraded from his reported 450k
Just how much more will have a big impact on the Raiders. 2019 has been an expensive season. Even before dealing with Jack and Bateman Canberra had already upgraded Elliot Whitehead, Ryan Sutton, Corey Horsburgh to the end of 2022, and Bailey Simonsson and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to the end of 2023. They’ve still got to make sure they find money to keep local junior Nic Cotric in green, and his recent selection in the Australian team for the end of year tests has set off an increased payment of its own. Like Jack, Cotric will be on the market from 1 November and the only notable salary coming off the books in 2019 is Jordan Rapana. These demands make it hard to see how the Raiders can keep as much of their current roster together.
One option is to try and push the increased pay-days for Jack, John and Nic to beyond next season. BJ Leilua, Aidan Sezer, Jarrod Croker, Sia Soliola, Michael Oldfield, JJ Collins and Luke Bateman all come off contract after next year, and only Croker and Soliola (and maybe Oldfield depending how team friendly his contract is) are likely to be at the club after that. This would allow the Raiders to (hopefully) keep BJ Leilua for another run in 2020, and if Rapa somehow makes ends meet,
The other option, which, if the scuttlebutt is to be believed, the Raiders have been pursuing, is to allow Leilua and Sezer to walk free should they find appropriate suitors. This would free up the cash now to upgrade Wighton and Bateman, keep Cotric, and maybe even have some change left over.
Either way, the Raiders are likely to lose Rapana, with Leilua and Sezer’s time at the club also fundamentally shortened. Canberra will miss these players greatly. Rapana was one of the best wingers in the competition before an injury hampered 2019. Leilua had a brilliant 2019 derailed by a terrifying injury. When the games got difficult in the finals, his ability to break tackles and get a quick play the ball from a cold start was only second to Josh Papalii. Aidan Sezer’s back half of 2019 was his best in green, but I suspect his bags were marked when George Williams was signed.
In reality, this prioritisation of players is one that any good side will have to go through (except the Roosters for reasons). When things go well players get awards, they get rep jerseys and they rightly seek to take the opportunity to look after their families. The Raiders last good run in 2016 saw Paul Vaughan, Shaun Fensom and Edrick Lee all move on. It makes sense that 2019 may have a similar impact.
The Raiders are better placed than 2016 to handle departures this time. In 2017 Canberra were left a top-heavy squad, relying on Dave Taylor, Luke Bateman and Clay Priest as their bench forwards. Now they have a litany of young forwards ready to provide value in 2020 – Sutton, Horsburgh, Young, Guler, Havili and Murchie will all be champing at the bit for more time.
But losing Leilua and Rapana will put a strain on squad depth. Cotric will likely move to right centre (something we foreshadowed over twelve months ago) and Simonsson will take up a spot on one wing, but suddenly Michael Oldfield and Sebastian Kris become more important than they should be in a side that wants to be a premiership contender.
I hope the Raiders keep Leilua and Rapana but I don’t think they will. I think they’re better placed to win in 2020 with them in the side than without them. I think Jack and John (and Nic) deserve the money they want (or at least a reasonable proportion of it). I don’t know how Peter Mulholland and Coach Stuart are going to square this hole, but how well they do that will play a huge part in how the Raiders perform in 2020.