How do you fit two hard running “eyes-up” footy players who both love playing on the left side of the ruck into the same halves pairing? It’s a problem Ricky Stuart is going to have to work out in the near future.
Both solutions have good justifications, but the benefits of continuity suggest that we will likely see George Williams on the right. This is a very important decision. If the Raiders are to go as far (or further) as 2019, they’ll need to successfully integrate Williams into the side. However, it may be some time before that is clear.
Jack Wighton was brilliant in his move to the halves last season. As we’ve written a few times, he did his best work on the left. It was here that he replicated the role he had played so effectively at fullback; making a simple short or long choice in passing. When teams began to remove those options, most notably by aggressive outside-in defenders like Manly, Jack was forced to run more. He did with gusto and was incredible effective.
George Williams seems like a very good ballplayer to me. All vision of him from the Super League shows a player capable of taking the ball to the line and making similar decisions to Jack: short or long, depending on what the defence offers. Like Jack he primarily operates on the left.
Obviously both players can’t operate exclusively on the left, lest John Bateman get lonely, or BJ Leilua move inwards and fulfil his destiny as the greatest ballplayer in history. So how do you best manage this process?
The case for Williams playing exclusively on the left is based on the comfort of transition for both players. As has been stated constantly in the national media (and acknowledged by George himself) the shift from Super League to the NRL is a big one, and it seems to me that making that transition as easy as possible is a smart approach for Coach Stuart to take. Sitting Williams in his comfort zone is one way to work him into the top grade.
A similar approach worked for Wighton last season. He was allowed the space to do the things he knew, while learning to do what he hadn’t. Williams can be ‘eased in’ (if there is such a thing) to the NRL by working in the way he already knows, while Jack thrives working with John Bateman in attack.
There are risks with this approach. For starters some may argue that the the “keep it simple” approach was a big reason Jack succeeded in 2019, and putting this much strain on him to operate as the marshall on the right may be a step too far.
It’s hard to agree with this, particularly given the rapid rate at which Wighton improved last season. Early on the game plan was around simplicity, but within weeks he was the Milk’s primary attacking creator outside of Josh Hodgson. He’s an unquestionably talented player and as we’ve noted, he’s only just begun to tap into that potential. It’s not a stretch to think he could handle a shift to operating primarily on the right.
But there are reasons why Stuart will likely persist with Wighton on the left. A more profound risk is creating two changes where one will do. Regardless of who plays on the right, there will be upheaval there with the departure of Sezer and the inclusion of Curtis Scott. Jack, Smelly and Jarrod Croker already have developed an understanding on the left that should be preserved, and if we’re talking comfort, why not put Williams alongside Bateman, his teammate of five years at Wigan. Stability and cohesion is important and more valuable than many realise.
Speaking of which you should read why here: https://sportress.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/the-virtue-of-cohesion/
A change here may also sacrifice the defensive understandings built here over 2019. The right side defence was the Green Machine’s biggest weakness in terms of points conceded. Removing Jack Wighton’s brutal contact from that side may further exacerbate a weakness.
Regardless, the nature of both players suggests to me that this won’t be as definite a split as Jack shared with Sezer, and that both would spend time operating as second receiver to the other. I think Jack in pariticular will jump to the right as first receiver more than he did in 2019. The benefit of this is that the Raiders would have a more balanced attack, after nearly half their points coming down Jack’s wing in 2019.
Another factor here is that a Williams right boot makes him well placed to operate on the right, and Jack’s left boot is useful in reverse. George has repeatedly shown his capable of getting his kick away in tight spaces, and this should not direct which side of the field he needs to be on, but it is a useful side-effect of setting him up on the right.
Regardless of the decision made, its important to remember the right decision here may not present itself straight away. Canberra are lucky they have a capable back up in Sam Williams that will easily slot in should Williams take more time than hoped to adjust. If the Englishman does take time to adjust, we may see a switch of sides, particularly if he starts on the right.
Ultimately, the answer may be less either/or than presented here. It would not surprise me to see Jack spending more time on the right, shifting to operate on either side of Williams. The ability of a Elliot Whitehead and Jarrod Croker as creators (11 try assists in 2019 between them) and ball players afford the Raiders that flexibility. Bateman and BJ provide similar options on the right.
Your confidence as to how this will go is based on your confidence in Coach Stuart to manage this process. His successful integration of Wighton last season would make many excited, just as his ongoing battle with Sezer (and others in previous contexts) may worry.
Stuart has many pros and cons to weigh up. I’ve no doubt he’s already got an idea of what the approach will be. How successful he is in implanting this approach may be determinative in the Raiders success in 2020.