Rotation and the Return of Depth

BY DAN

One of the underrated parts of the recent Canberra Raiders victory over Wests Tigers was the performance of the bench. In support of Josh Papalii’s brilliance from the outset, the Raiders were able to bring on multiple players off the bench that had a big impact. Given they were without at least two of their usually starting line up, it was an impressive performance, and revealed useful and necessary depth in the roster.

Depth has been a constant battle this season. The absence of John Bateman and Hudson Young has drained the middle of resources, forcing Joe Tapine to an edge, Corey Horsburgh into a starting role and made the departures of Luke Bateman, JJ Collins, Royce Hunt and Jack Murchie feel laden with risk.

When Corey Horsburgh came down with gastroenteritis during last week, that lack of depth was exposed. Canberra had to bring in Ryan Sutton, who hadn’t played first grade since for 9 months. In the current playing environment that saps the stamina of big men, this would be a challenge. He was joined on the bench by relative youngster Emre Guler, who for much of last year was getting limited exposure. Suddenly these two were to form the majority of the Raiders’ bench rotation.

The response of both of them can only make fans of the Green Machine happy. Both cracked a 100 metres, with huge post contact metres. Sutton brought a huge energy lift, particularly in defence. Clearly he was happy to be out there again. For his part, Guler’s ability to step off his left back behind the ruck gave the Canberra so many quick rucks that the Tigers’ line speed was designed to avoid.

That wasn’t the only good performances from rotation players. Underrated too was the performance of Siliva Havili as utility, taking several tough runs at the back end of each half. He didn’t crack 100 metres, but that was only because of the limits of his chances. Jordan Rapana was excellent coming into the starting line-up, with a bevy of bruising yardage runs reminding Milk fans of his importance to their chances in 2020 (and likely cementing his permanent return to the starting line-up). Bailey Simonsson was moved to the bench, with his ability to cover a range of positions across the backline proving critical as Canberra had to account for head injury assessments of several players at the back of the game. Add to this was the importance of Joe Tapine doing a job in replacement of John Bateman. Tapine’s relative success replacing one of the best edge defenders in the game has meant the Raiders haven’t had to search for other options, or lament the absence of Hudson Young.

Now instead of trying to build out a 17 the Raiders should feel comfortable with their playing stocks, with Corey Horsburgh and Hudson Young return this round. as reinforcements. Coach Stuart has revealed he’s considering a rotation policy, and this would make sense given the dearth of match fitness options with the cancellation of the Canterbury Cup. It’s a sound idea and one with a lot of merit. The style of play of the post covid NRL has put a premium on the efforts of middle forwards. Week to week they are taking are pounding, and being asked to do more work for longer. At the end of the year fresh legs in these forwards could well be an important part of finals success.

Stuart utilised a rotation at the start of 2019. He abandoned it when it emerged that Horsburgh and Young were too good to leave out on a regular basis. Implementing this approach in 2020 faces a similar problem. Of the existing 17, who are they comfortable leaving out? What positions are considered “flexible” enough to rotate middle forwards through?

In 2020 the most consistent rotation has been Papalii, Lui, Sia, Horsburgh and Guler. It would take a brave man to suggest Papalii should sit out games on anything other than ‘as absolutely necessary’ (i.e. to rest with a finals position sewn up). While Dunamis Lui is hardly a fan favourite, it’s clear that Stuart values his defensive workrate, particularly early in the game. Corey Horsburgh is the Raiders primo source of second-phase play, something that has a huge impact in the current style of play. He gets through a huge amount of work, and I would be surprised if he missed any games outside of injury or suspension.

Already this leaves just four bench positions to fit six players (Guler, Sia Soliola, Siliva Havili, Bailey Simonsson, Ryan Sutton and Hudson Young). And then if/when John Bateman returns, Joe Tapine will be a part of this mix.

Given Guler’s rapid development this season I would be reticent to rest him; rather, there seems to be much benefit in allowing him to continue to build his game each week. Ryan Sutton’s performance showed a man that seriously keen to play and Stuart noted as much. Hudson Young needs as many minutes as you can get into him, particularly given if something happens to Joe Tapine before John Bateman comes back, you need him to play 80 minutes a game on the edge. Only Sia Soliola has the experience that would allow him to miss games and not be off the pace when he returns. I do not envy Stuart working this out.

In order to find space for the middle forwards, the Raiders may need to make a decision about what they want from their bench utility. Currently Havili fills that role, providing potential ruck work as well as middle forward minutes. In addition to this, Canberra has carried a back on the bench all season. Carrying only one utility – be that Bailey Simonsson or Siliva Havili – would free up the extra rotation spot to get minutes into players like Sutton and Young without sacrificing more established players. Again, I don’t envy Stuart here. The Raiders have needed an extra back in almost every game this season for a range of reasons. Havili was underutilised before this game, and given how important his metres and energy was against the Tigers there’s not a clear path or an easy decision here.

However Stuart cuts the side up, it’s pleasing to see that the Raiders once again have more than 17 players that should be in this side. Just last Friday the Raiders were coming off a game in which they were dominated in the middle, had lost their second best middle for the game and were bringing a man who hadn’t played in 9 months into their squad. They had almost no other options behind him. There’s no doubt the quandaries of rotation and the return of depth is a welcome change.

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