It’s a truism of Rugby League that you need depth to succeed. Even in the best circumstances, good teams need decent cover for their stars when they leave for representative duty. Then injuries come, and a whole new set of questions get asked. Normally you have to wait for the season to start for that depth to tested, but the Canberra Raiders are already facing a challenge.
John Bateman had surgery last week, and while all suggestions were good, it still appears to be touch-and-go whether he’ll be ready for the beginning of the season (although it should be noted that when he broke his face last year, 8 weeks out turned into 3 because his sweat actually has healing properties). Since he joined the side, the Raiders haven’t won a game that John didn’t start, so you can understand why this matters. We
As we wrote last week, the Raiders would normally have able back-up for John in the form of Hudson Young. He filled in for Bateman in all his games missed in 2019, doing a notable job for a guy that had barely played a brace of minutes in the top flight. We all know why Hudson isn’t available.
The obvious backfill seems to come in the place of Joe Tapine, who’s a natural second-rower masquerading in the middle because of he’s so good he can pretty much play anywhere. His place at lock will probably be filled by Ryan Sutton, who proved in 2019 he is a solid middle forward, before a calf injury prematurely ended his time in the top grade. Emre Guler, who was preferred to Sutton at the back end of the season, and Siliva Havili, who interestingly fell out of the favour then, would likely be given opportunities, and Corey Horsburgh more minutes. Jack Murchie used to be a backrower, but his size, and relative lack of pace seem to project better as a middle forward than on the edge, so he may help out behind Sutton, rather than as an option for Bateman.
On its own Bateman’s boots are big ones to fill, should it come to that. But as the Curtis Scott matter chugs on, it seems increasingly likely that Scott will spend a good part of the first half of the season on the sideline, depending obviously on his legal outcome. Scott’s role is most likely to be filled by Nic Cotric, who wasn’t at his best when he filled in for BJ Leilua at right centre in 2019. Michael Oldfield will likely backfill for Nic, but Harley Smith-Shields could be get his shot to show his talent.
These feel like relatively able replacement, but there’s no question they’re not the Raiders best-case scenario. Bateman is one of the best backrowers in the world, and the way he turned the right edge into a defensive wall last season is almost too much of an ask a simple fill-in. Scott has been a disciplined defender at the Storm and could have been an able replacement for Leilua in a settled line up. But these injuries have exacerbated the existing instability of the right side. Bateman, Sezer, BJ, Rapana begets to Bateman, Williams, Scott, Cotric begets to Tapine, Williams, Cotric, Oldfield/Smith-Shields.
A complete overhaul half way through pre-season is nobody’s idea of building a good defence. The Raiders have succeeded with making late changes to key positions late in the pre-season before (see Nicoll-Klokstad, Charnze, fullback extraordinaire) but it’s equally likely to result in sub-par outcomes (see Sezer, Aidan, not a hooker).
Normally a challenge like this is one that you have to overcome on the fly. You have to hope that talent can overcome as much as possible what continuity and cohesion can’t. The Raiders are fortunate that with weeks before the season starts, they have ample time to prepare. The right edge can train and be tested through the trials. Lessons can be learned and implemented before a competition point is up for grabs.
And if they can handle this roster challenge, it will place them well for later in the year if they face other challenges. More minutes into Tapine, Sutton, Guler and Havili and perhaps even time for Smith-Shields will build fitness and experience. It’s all good preparation for the back half of the season, should the Raiders handle this challenge well.
The best laid plans of the Raiders are already facing a challenge. Lucky for them they‘be already done the first part of the job by having enough talent to provide some form of cover for a difficult situation. They also have time on their side. Soon we’ll see if they’ll be able to pass the test.