Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough

BY DAN

The worst kept secret had finally be revealed, with Huddersfield announcing Aidan Sezer is joining on a two-year contract.

In Aidan Sezer’s first game for the Canberra Raiders, he caught the ball at first receiver on the left, took a few steps towards the line, threatened to pass, burst through the defence and rambled to the line for the game sealing try. He did this with what would later be revealed to be a fractured eye socket.

I was convinced the Raiders had finally solved the curse of Sticky. This was it. I was in love.

To be fair I’d been pretty close to all in since Canberra announced Sezer would be coming to the capital in mid 2015. Daly Cherry-Evans impending arrival on the Gold Coast (ha remember that!) had forced the Titans to make a choice – ostensibly between Kane Elgy and Aidan Sezer. How fortunate that the Raiders had been there to pry away the most talented of the two. When Cherry-Evans reneged on his deal to stay in Manly, I was petrified that Sezer would stay in the warmer climate. True to his word, he made his way to Canberra that offseason.

So here we had a genuinely talented young half choosing Canberra over glitzier surroundings? Sticking to his move even when word emerged the Titans wanted him to stay? As the kids say, inject it straight into my veins.

When Sezer spent the first few weeks of his Raiders career nursing his damaged eye socket it only served to build on my view of Aidan. Not that I was alone. Across the rugby league community people were excited that the Raiders had a captain of the ship, a player that could complement the dynamic running of Blake Austin and the brilliant work around the ruck of Josh Hodgson. The Raiders’ halves became something to talk about, even while both of them sat on the sidelines. Andrew Johns famously said they should be New South Wales starting pair, a take so stunning in retrospect an ASADA official probably turned up at Joey’s door as soon as they heard it.

When he and Austin returned from injury we waited for them to click. And waited. And waited. When the Raiders went on a run late in 2016 it was driven by Hodgson and Leipana rather than Sezer and Austin. Sezer was constantly in a struggle just to get his hands on the ball. Hodgson ate first because it seemed silly for anyone else to touch the ball. Blake Austin’s manifestation of the Dunning-Krueger effect meant the ball landed in his hands more than it should have. Sezer was too willing to take a back seat to Hodgson’s forays and Austin’s running.

There were big expectations heading into 2017. The proximity to the grand final had most looking at the halves as the way to bridge that gap. Even his teammates were excited for what 2017 would bring. Shit, BJ Leilua thought he should be playing origin based on his preseason form before Christmas.

Aidan’s 2017 was much like the rest of the squad. Frustratingly it never really got out of second gear. As we can’t get over our fascination with who has the number seven on his back, Sezer bore the brunt of fan frustration when the poor performance was more about a forward pack suddenly stripped of depth and an incredible rate of ill discipline (Raiders were 15th in completion rate and 11th in possession percentage that year).

Through 2016 and early 2017 Austin and Sezer had played as ‘traditional’ split halves – each with a side of the field. As 2017 wore it became clear that this would not work. As we wrote in our season review:

Later in the season Austin began to play more as a secondary receiver and Sezer took control of much of the Raiders direction. The side benefited immensely.

Sezer didn’t seize control. Rather he was ceded it, and the side benefitted. It was somewhat a metaphor for the biggest problem he would face in Canberra. Too often he was happy to let Austin or Hodgson run the show, chip in where important. When he did decide to involve himself, good things resulted.

Sezer knew he still had improvement in his game. In fact after 2017 he said:

I know there is so much growth still in my game, and a significant point I’ll be looking to address is striking the balance between getting quality ball and directing the boys around the park.

But instead of getting a chance to improve in 2018, Josh Hodgson was injured and Ricky Stuart made one of the most unforgivable decisions of his coaching career. Without Hodgson for the first half of the season, Sezer had a unique opportunity to establish himself as the centrepoint of the Raiders attack – at the time we called it the ‘old school approach‘. It was a recognition that to win Canberra had to get the ball in the hands of their most talented half more. Hardy revolutionary, it was a return to the pre-Cam Smith/Josh Hodgson norms of rugby league.

Instead Sticky made him the backup hooker, played him sixty minutes of game in the ruck. The results were predictable. Sezer’s service was slow because he always stood up to pass the ball – almost like he’d spent his entire footballing life as a halfback *insert thinking face emoji*. His creativity was stifled; he was exhausted from suddenly making 40 tackles a game. When he did come back into the starting side it was to share control of the side with Sam Williams. The a Raiders stumbled to one of the most painfully memorable 0-4 starts in rugby league history.

Suddenly rumours started to leak that Sezer was on his way back to Canterbury, something which has since become such a regular occurrence that by 2019 it barely caused a ripple. It was always hard to tell where these were coming from. If Sezer was trying to push his way out I couldn’t blame him. Canberra had taken a man in the prime of the short lifetime of a rugby league player and asked him to sacrifice his future earnings for a flawed strategy.

The Raiders’ victory over Canterbury in round five of that year remains one of my favourite victories in recent years. Canberra were desperate. They didn’t just need a win. There season depended on it. Back in the halves, when the chips were down Aidan Sezer played one of his best games in the nation’s capital, single-handedly dragging Canberra to victory.

If the Milk were trying to push him out, then it’s admirable that Sezer managed to maintain his focus on the field. Imagine being asked to sacrifice your career for a side then being told ‘well actually we don’t want you anymore’.

By 2019 rumours about Sezer being pushed out were being replaced by who Canberra was planning to bring in. George Williams’ signature was only made official mid-way through the year, but from before the beginning of the 2019 season there were rumours the deal was a good as done. The writing was on the wall for Aidan, and he still had the best part of two years to run on his deal.

A culmination of roster issues emerged around this that compounded the position that Aidan was simply the odd man out. The Raiders had admitted mid-way through 2018 that the incoming British contingent of John Bateman and Ryan Sutton had put them at the edge of the cap, and their bargain-basement additions in Bailey Simonsson and Charze Nicoll-Klokstad reflected that. Their subsequent upgrades meant that Sezer wasn’t the only one identified as on his way out. The question of how to keep Jordan Rapana and BJ Leilua has no doubt bouncing off the wall at Raiders HQ for some time. Aidan, (and Jordy it turns out) was the only way to pay the price of success.

For his part, Sezer’s quiet start to 2019 had seen him moved from the first string side and into Mounties for the first time since he came to Canberra. Off-field circumstances and on-field performance were reinforcing each other in a painful cycle. Not only was Sezer on the way out- but he was heading that way with barely a shot fired in 2019.

***

His return to the side and subsequent play over the back half of 2019 will always resonate with me. Aidan put aside his own future to focus on the one thing that mattered – a chance at premiership glory. It was as if the spirit of round 1 2016 had been found.

He ran the ball more. That threat to the line was all the space that John Bateman outside him needed to make hay. He kicked well, a critical part of the Raiders 2019 plan. He still ceded control to Hodgson and touches to Wighton, and was forced to play third fiddle in an offence that relied on talent rather than structure. He still contributed, and he still made game defining plays. Who can forget his try-saving tackle on Michael-Chee Kam against the Tigers in round 18? Or his brilliant run, then kick that ended up with a Rapana try in round 13? Or the field-goals on-tap against the Sharks?

***

Aidan Sezer was never the star we thought he could be. But what he delivered was valuable for Canberra and important for their success. Too often he was blamed for the bad times, by both fan and coaches alike. All through this he held his head high, and showed tremendous faith in his own ability, even when the side he nearly gave his career for showed little in him.

Sezer will continue his career in Huddersfield , but I can’t help but think he would be a useful addition to many NRL sides in 2020, not in the least the Raiders. George Williams is an unquestioned talent, but the transition of English halves to the NRL hasn’t always been seamless. Alas, cap pressures make that impossible.

How you felt about Aidan varied fan to fan. Such was the mix of promise and frustration. He was never a strong enough voice to grab the game by the neck, which is exactly what so many fans (and coaches) wanted to see. It meant that so much of what you thought came down to whether what he gave was enough. For me it was. For the Raiders it wasn’t.

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