It’s hardly controversial to say that Nic Cotric is an elite back in the National Rugby League. At just 21 he’s already played at the highest levels of the game: Origin, Australia and even in a grand final. He’s seen everything. Yet for all the personal and team success, it’s not clear he’s met the height of his potential yet. Could 2020 be the year that Cotric puts it all together?
Nic took to NRL like to like I take to bad jokes: with vigour. If there was a concern over Ricky Stuart’s decision to jettison Edrick Lee simply to find time and space for Nic to play, it was quieted within moments of his stepping on the field. Cotric was a revelation; still a boy at 19, but able to to break tackles seemingly at will.
While the Raiders struggled on the park it was rarely because of him. He scored 16 tries in that season, breaking 135 tackles and making 17 line breaks along the way. So often he dragged the Raiders out of their own end by sheer force (of will, but also of bicep), bouncing out of dummy-half, left arm at the ready, able to turn a sneaky dart into extra metres and a quick play the ball.
His early success was an anchor though. From then on, everything he did was seen through the prism of a fully-formed player. His body was ahead of his years, and his sudden impact, bred so much from his physical prowess meant that he was developing his game away in the spotlight of expectation. His excellent performances were no longer a surprise, but rather simply meeting the lofty standards he had established. In 2018 he had 149 tackle breaks, 20 line breaks, and was 18th man for Origin.
But instead of sheer amazement of what he was doing, much of the discussion was about his potential to level up. Already one of the best wingers in the competition, anything was now possible. The conversation was about how long until he transferred to a position with more play-making responsibility, or how long until he found representative honour.
When injury to BJ Leilua made space for him to move to right centre in mid-2019, many (including these pages) felt it was manifest destiny. Cotric was simply heading to where he was most suited, his powerful left fend ready to work, his right arm free to flick offloads galore to the lucky winger standing outside him. He was about to be selected for Origin; perhaps this was Cotric about to fulfil the astounding extent of his potential.
But initially Michael Oldfield was preferred, and it took an injury to Jordan Rapana to get him over to right centre. For the first time in his professional career (and we’re guessing, but probably in his football life) Nic was excellent but not dominant. His 89 metres a game at centre were well down on his season average of nearly 99 metres a game – surely reflective of the reduced opportunities to take yardage carries, but also reflecting a position that may have reduced his opportunity to use his elite carry. He only had 80 tackle breaks for the season, and dropped to 10 line-breaks for the season (of which only one came at centre).
He was a good centre, but often seemed unsure at how best to involve himself. The Raiders stilted right side attack provided few opportunities, and while Cotric didn’t struggle, he didn’t dominate either. Such can be the cruelty of high expectations. An ankle injury shortened his stay, and then suspension following a spear tackle that may or may not have been a spear tackle (ask Ricky, I don’t know anything) meant that he spent more time off the field rather than developing his game at right centre as Leilua was out.
Curtis Scott’s arrival this offseason seemed seemed recognition by the Raiders that they saw Nic’s long-term future on the wing rather than the centre. Not a damning scenario given how important wingers are in the modern game, but a limitation on the possibilities of Cotric that we had never seen before. Someone who had been talked about as being potentially elite across all five backline position was now “just” a winger.
It seems to me that this has undersold Nic’s potential. Entering his fourth year in the league at just 21 it seems more likely than not that Cotric is an unfinished product. He’s still learning. At the same time, he’s more experienced (in terms of NRL games) than anyone sharing the right side of the field with him. It is not a stretch that the “meeting expectations” of 2019 has provided a solid foundation for something bigger in 2020. What’s more, he will have more time to prepare to play centre in 2020, should Scott’s legal situation (and Toddy G) prevent him from taking his place. The lessons learnt in his previous struggles will serve him, and the Raiders, well this season.
The Raiders agree that Nic has more to show. They have already flagged their keenness to keep Cotric around, and are reportedly poised to extend him, at a reportedly team friendly price (around $500k a year). They’ll be fortunate to do so, and there’s no doubt if they can’t that the Roosters would be desperate to apply their salary sombrero to bringing him to Bondi.
If Nic signs on the Green Machine will get to see him as he likely develops the full potential of his powers in the next few years. There is a fortunate situation. Cotric may have been quiet in 2019, but to see a relatively quiet season as a sign that he has tapped his potential is foolish. His time has come.