The Forgotten Men Part I: Elliott Whitehead

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders have many heroes. Some of them we talk about more than others. But for every Josh Hodgson or Josh Papalii there’s an Elliott Whitehead or a Hudson Young, who don’t share the profile of others, but will be nearly as integral to the Raiders success in 2020. These are their stories [insert Law and Order duh duh sound].

Elliott Whitehead does his best work in the dark. It’s for these reasons we don’t notice him. He’s too busy doing what needs to be done, seeking no praise, victory his only interest. His work is rarely seen in the stat sheet. People outside Canberra are more likely to remember him for his scooter, or as one of the Green Machine’s British Brigade, but they are not aware how important he is to Canberra. He does everything on both sides of the ball, and would be known as the most versatile back-rower in the game, if not for the presence of John Bateman on the other side of the field from him.

For the Canberra Raiders to succeed in 2020, Elliott Whitehead will have to be a big part.

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Elliott Whitehead will have his second year working alongside Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker on the left. With Nic Cotric they are a formidable foursome on both sides of the ball.

Whitehead’s role in attack is one few people in the game can play. It relies on him to be part backrower, part centre. He takes the hard carries as necessary, though rarely being relied to do the bulk of the work in the middle. Rather, it’s his job to take the best and the worst on the edges: to take advantage of movement, or create it by finding his belly. Then when Jack or Josh Hodgson is looking to create on his side he becomes a secondly ball-player, able to provide another option to link Jack to Jarrod or outside. If you want an example of this just look at this pass from his third game with the club. It’s exquisite.

In defence for years he has compensated for the weaknesses of the smaller defenders around him, getting through a huge quantity of defence despite being situated on an edge. From his arrival in 2016, he’s been either the leader in tackles made for the Raiders (2016, 2018) or second (2017, 2019), only ever falling behind Josh Hodgson, (who teams run at incessantly to tire him out), cracking 700 tackles each year, including mammoth numbers in 2019 (880) and 2016 (1,062). The entire list of non-Josh Hodgson Milkmen that have cracked 700 tackles in that time follows:

– John Bateman 2019 (820 tackles: third in the team)

– Josh Papalii 2019 (736 tackles: fourth in the team).

It’s a unique skill-set; human spakfilla, able to bridge that gap between backs and forwards. In his time in Canberra he’s played six, he’s played middle forward and he’s played on the edge. If it wasn’t for the presence of John Bateman, the evolutionary Whitehead, he’d be known as the most versatile forward in the competition.

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Why has Whitehead fallen so far behind in the conversation than other second-rowers in the competition?

Whitehead is clearly a humble bloke. He seems to enjoy harassing his teammates on instagram much more than any greater limelight. When John Bateman and Jack Wighton rung the contract bell and demanded to be seen (or paid – right by the way), Elliott quietly extended his time before the season started, seemingly hoping to avoid any discussion. As he told Scott Hazlewood of NRL.com:

“I’m happy it’s done now so I can focus on the rest of the season. I didn’t really want to go anywhere else, what the club’s done for me in my career has been awesome so hopefully I can repay them over the next few years”

Read the whole article here

Part of the problem is the nature of his role. While he’s busy being Horace Grant, everyone else is stacking stats. Whitehead will chip in on an attacking raid and throw a critical pass, but you’ll never remember a run like a Viliame Kikau. Whitehead will make all the tackles the teams needs and more, but he was doing that before the rest of his team were. Nothing changed. He quietly excelled at the things that you don’t see unless you’re looking for them. No better evidence is there of this than the fact that the Coach is probably his biggest fan, calling him the ‘backbone‘ of their 2019 season.

Part of it is that his impact for so many years has to been to hold the line. Bateman and Wighton’s arrival in the defensive line coincided with an uptick in the Raiders’ defence. For the preceding years Whitehead had often been the man tasked with trying to interpret Blake Austin’s crazy feet, or masking Sam Williams’ size. The porous defence around him meant his efforts that took the team defence from terrible to bad went unnoticed. Now there’s a defensive line that includes a range of people doing the right damn thing. Smelly is crucial, but still unnoticed. And maybe that’s how he prefers it.

The thing about being overlooked but critical is that people tend to notice when your gone. Smelly is 31 and probably at the back end of his prime. The motor that has been driving his success cannot power on forever. At some stage he won’t be able to play all but 36 minutes of the season.

Maybe we’ll finally notice then.

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