The Canberra Raiders got the best news of their offseason when it was confirmed that BJ Leilua would be at the club for 2020. Leilua’s decision to stay where he is will have a big impact on what the Green Machine look like next season.
It’s no surprise this decision was announced just days after Rapana left the side. It suggests that the cap situation had effectively come down to a decision between them. Rapana took the money Japanese union offered. BJ was unable to secure a deal that could provide the space the Raiders needed – the scuttlebutt has been for days that teams were looking for the Raiders to kick in 200k for next season, which removed the incentive for Milk to let him go.
It means the Raiders get to keep one of their best ball-runners – one of the few players left that can single-handedly turn a dead set around with his power. This is critical. Papalii was stunning this season but shouldn’t always be relied for the dirty carries. BJ bookended the season by displaying his importance to giving the Raiders another option for these difficult runs – particularly in the finals series where he had 100 plus metres in both the prelim and the grand final and set up the game winning try in the qualifying final. And this was without match fitness. While their are other damaging runners in the side, few outside Papalii (and Cotric) have the ability to break tackles at will.
BJ’s defensive work with John Bateman to protect the smallest man in the Raiders line (Aidan Sezer) was also a big part of the improved Raiders defence. It will likely be George Williams next year (see below) but this role will be equally important.
BJ staying means the Raiders backline looks much more stable than it did earlier in the week. Simonsson comes in for Rapana on the wing; and life goes on. Oldfield, Kris and some other younger players (Harley Smith-Shields most notably) provide adequate injury coverage (within reason).
It’s a much stronger position than the likely patchwork situation that would have resulted if he’d left. The cap situation meant that it was unlikely that the spare money would have been used for extra players (rather to upgrade Wighton and Bateman). The Raiders would have had to promote within, and while Oldfield, Kris et al are excellent squad players, they are simply not in the class of BJ and the others in the starting side. It also gives another year for the younger brigade like Smith-Shields to develop before potentially taking over beyond 2020. There is a question about BJ being a blockage in Cotric’s likely eventual move to right centre, but hopefully one year extra at winger does not change a career.
It does however put increasing interest on Aidan Sezer’s position. It’s never been clear if the Raiders needed to get rid of one of Rapana/Leilua and Sezer, but we’re going to find out in the near future.
If he does go the Raiders will be all in on George Williams. Coming into the starting side straight from England will put some pressure on a Williams, but the stability of the set up around him, particularly with Hodgson, Wighton and Bateman being options 1,2 and 3 to create, means Williams may be able to work his way in slowly. But the risk is there. This now has to work. The Raiders will have a back up in Sam Williams – forget 2020, I feel like he’ll still be in green in 2030 – but similar to Oldfield and Kris, he offers more stability as opposed to George’s possible/potential/hopeful stardom.
Finally, it’s a recognition that the Raiders are preparing to be a contender in 2020. Development is not out the window; the aforementioned depth opportunities in the backline and the extra opportunity for a bench forward mean players like Hudson Young, Corey Horsburgh and a Emre Guler should continue to spend time in first grade, and others like Jack Murchie get more chances to prove their worth. But the first grade squad that went 8 minutes from glory in 2019 will be back in the most part in 2020.
All in all the Raiders are better with Leilua in the side so this should be a welcome announcement. It’s just sad that Jordan Rapana had to leave to make it happen.