The Potential of Jack Wighton

BY DAN

Jack Wighton sees the outside defenders ready to jam him from the outside.

He takes the ball one pass off the ruck, steps off his left foot, powers between two backrowers accidentally standing next to each to score. He scores because he’s too strong for the two defenders who each weighed more than him. He scores because he’s too quick for them, or anyone else thinking about helping out. He scores because he saw the same thing that Josh Hodgson did – two bigger guys next to each other that normally aren’t. He scores the Canberra Raiders only grand final try of the last twenty five years.

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Many people think the Canberra Raiders are on the cusp of something. That in the up-and-down world of rugby league also-rans, the Green Machine can emerge from the pack to become a side mentioned with the Roosters and the Storm for a period of time. Those sides have been perennial contenders because they they don’t stand still. Always improving, always changing with the time. They find ways to maximise the performance of each position, turning talent into stars.

If the Raiders plan on finding a way to make the step up from 2019 permanent, they’ll need to do so similarly. We’ve already highlighted that in the forwards this will come down to Corey Horsburgh and the bench mob. But perhaps more important to sustaining this rise will be the ongoing improvement of Jack Wighton.

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The decision to make Jack Wighton the starting five-eighth was a risky one. He’d failed there before. At the time it wasn’t clear the Raiders had a replacement at fullback, a position he’d quietly become elite at. As much as he’d been already been playing as a pseudo-half – at the time we described the way he exclusively played second receiver on the left ‘split five-eighths’ – the change from sometimes to all the time ball-player was going to be a challenge.

It’s obvious that Jack was a success. More than a breakout year, it was a statement of fulfillment. He moved to the frontline, both in defence and in responsibility in attack. A maiden State of Origin appearance and a Clive Churchill medal for best on ground in a grand final later, and it’s safe to say it all worked out fine.

Despite all that Jack has plenty of room for improvement, and that’s tremendous news for Canberra’s prospects in 2020.

As displayed so aptly in the grand final, Wighton’s running game was his strength. 108.7m per game (per NRL.com), combined with 2.8 tackle breaks (second in the team behind Charnze Nicole-Klokstad) and 10 line breaks across the season showed (per fox sports) shows just how powerful he is in this regard.

It’s obvious that teams will try harder to close down his options to run in 2020. Often in 2019 teams tried to jam him from the outside in, removing options for him to promote the ball to his outside men. They were banking on him being easily flustered with his reducing options, and to make errors.

Occasionally it worked. Jack led the team in errors (38 across the season, or 1.5 a game), primarily coming from pushing a pass he shouldn’t have. You might remember his ill-fated pass in first State of Origin as a good example of this. You may remember that Jack had a lot of errors at fullback – he lead the league in 2016. However, as he matured (on-field at least) at the back back end of 2017 and 2018 they dissapeared from his game.

We may have seen a glimpse in 2019. As the season wore on, Jack’s decision making became more consistent. In 2019 the majority of his error count came in the early season. He had 25 errors and three games with at least five errors before the bye. He had no such meltdowns after. He often ran through the jam, and as we’ve pointed this out ad nauseum in these pages, this ability was critical in the ongoing success of the Raiders’ left side attack (which accounted for close to fifty percent of their tries in 2019).

Partly this resulted in his try assist numbers not being massive. He created as much by breaking the line as he did by setting someone over the line (according to Fox Sports he had 10 try assists to match his 10 line breaks, though NRL.com had those numbers at 5 and 4 respectively). This was reflected in the fact that the final pass was often thrown to him (9 tries total), or by Jarrod Croker or Elliot Whithead (11 try assists combined).

When he faces the jam in 2020 he will be ready.

***

The Raiders have a lot of faith in Jack. It’s rare that you trust a player who had only just established his bonafides at one position to one of the few with higher scrutiny. But the Raiders have gone one better, happy to let Aidan Sezer walk out the door and George Williams walk in.

At the very least the Raiders are comfortable that changing partners won’t impact Wighton in any material way. And given Williams preference for the same side as Jack (on the left), it may even suggest more of a roaming role for Wighton in 2020. When he took the job last year these pages said the Raiders would need to keep his job simple: occupy the left and make the decision between short, long and running. In 2020 hopefully he’ll be given more complex operations in a wider range of places. More time playing down the right will be another challenge for him, but given how he embraced the move on up last season there’s nothing to suggest he won’t handle it.

Teams will have a whole summer to prepare for Jack Wighton. They’ll take away the run. They’ll force him to create for the people around him. They’ll force him into harder decisions than short or long and running the ball. But they already tried that in 2019 and he handled it. He’s better prepared now, a full season of proving it at the highest levels of football.

***

Jack Wighton’s try is the only moment of the 2019 I’ve managed to watch again. I’ve watched because it was a moment; a brief flutter of the heart that the impossible wasn’t. It highlighted just how far he’d come in a year, and also how far he has to go. Running the ball will always be his strength, no matter what other teams try to do to take it away. He’s too strong and too fast.

There’s a chance that next season he might get a chance to do it all again – another shot at showing his best at the biggest moments the game can offer. The Raiders need more from Wighton. Luckily for Jack, and Canberra, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

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