It’s been a tough few weeks for the Canberra Raiders. In addition to losing the Red Horseman, they’ve lost three of their last four games. To paraphrase the father of Australia, Darryl Kerrigan, it’s not so much that they’ve lost games but what they’d done in them. The Knights, Manly and Parramatta are all quality teams, and in a normal world losses to them wouldn’t be soul destroying. But two of those losses occurred with key opposition play-makers injured, and revealed weaknesses in the Milk’s approach on both sides of the ball. Solutions are out there, but they are not simple to implement.
The problem: the right side
The main problem anyone with a set of eyes has noticed has been the defence of the Green Machine’s right edge, and most discussion has hinged on recruit Curtis Scott. Scott came to Canberra with some fanfare at the end of last season; his reputation was that of a more consistent defender than BJ Leilua. With John Bateman, the hope was Scott could provide the support that would allow George Williams to acclimatise to the difficulties of being a focal point for NRL attacks. That hasn’t worked out as yet.
John Bateman has been absent and let’s not shy away from how massive that is. Joe Tapine and Hudson Young have been fine fill-ins, but Bateman is a transformative player. Scott has been in a difficult position – expected to make a difference without the supporting apparatus that made the Raiders right side a wall in 2019.
Even accounting for a difficult position Scott has had a disappointing few weeks. In the last round he made 21 tackles and missed five, as the Eels relentless attack targeted the Milk’s right edge. It was like Blake Austin never left. Nor was this an isolated incident. As reported by Fox Sports, Scott has been the cause of 50 per cent of the tries scored against Canberra since the season reboot. As we said in our review, teams are trying to get outside Williams in the redzone in order to force Scott to make hard decisions. He has not succeeded so far.
This problem has not been limited to the defence. There ‘s a disconnect between George Williams and his outside men, including Scott, in attack. Prior to the break, and in the Melbourne game, this was not evident, and they seemed to be developing a nice chemistry. At that time Scott was running with direction and aggression. But with the Knights loss that fell apart, and since the Raiders have found nearly no joy on that side of the field. Their spacing seems to be off: Scott is often standing very wide of Williams, leaving him only the option of the face-ball to a backrower or hitting Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad out the back. It could be part of an explanation for why Williams is either taking the line on, or ambling sideways in search of support, when he should be doing a combination of the two. Since Williams god-like ball to Nic Cotric in the Melbourne match, Canberra have scored precisely zero tries down the right without a kick (they scored twice off kicks – once in the Knights game, and once in the Tigers game). Two total tries down that side against the unending array of tries coming against them is hardly ideal.
Option 1: Stay calm
The most conservative option is to keep Scott there. He’s young, and he’s been subject to a baptism of fire. He’s clearly lost confidence, but what better place to build that than against a side as anodyne as the Dragons? This is the perfect opportunity for him to establish himself, and for he and Williams to continue to build cohesion and understanding.
For his part Coach Stuart has seemed unwilling to move Scott. I’ve understood the reticence. The Raiders have been trying to build a connection between him, Williams and Cotric in both defence and attack. This is meant to be their right edge for years to come, and dropping Scott could lose him to Coach Stuart early in his tenure. Scott is young and developing, and the Green Machine want to make sure their investment in his future isn’t sacrificed to short-term needs in 2020.
Option Two: Bring Cotric in
There does however, come a point where keeping him in the side has a more negative impact on his confidence than dropping him would. I’m obviously speculating, but it’s hard not to think Scott’s relative lack of involvement and effectiveness on offence has built from the trials and travails he’s suffered in defence recently. At the very least, the workload of being the target is wearing him down. While cohesion has been a big goal so far in 2020, given Sticky happily swapped Cotric and Rapana around (presumably for Jordan’s comfort), that seems to be less of a priority in recent weeks.
Cotric is the most obvious replacement for Scott. He’s a stronger player, both in defence and attack, and proved in 2019 that he’s at least capable of defending at right centre. He’s not a lockdown, or an astute, defender, but right now he’ll at least be physical and consistent. Cotric would also give the Raiders a bit of attacking penetration on the right, which is sorely needed. He also played with Rapana and Hudson Young on that edge last year, meaning that the the questions of cohesion might not be as relevant to that relationship. His weaknesses here are that he’s yet to show that he’ll be any more capable at linking with his outside men, but given the Raiders haven’t even managed to connect half to centre, connecting centre to winger seems a luxury they can’t afford at this point. Bailey Simonsson would easily slot in on the left wing.
Option 3: The Other Guys
I wouldn’t recommend other options like rookie Harley Smith-Shields and Michael Oldfield for the centre position. It would be a cruel move by Sticky to force Smith-Shields to play his first NRL footy putting out the fires in the Raiders’ defence. For his part, Oldfield’s best defence is on the wing, and it’s not his strong suit there either. Sebastian Kris remains unavailable on sick leave.
In all likelihood though this trigger on Scott’s position won’t be pulled this week. I suspect the golden point game, along with the shorter turnaround (though not short, if that makes sense), and the green shoots that emerged in other areas of the attack are likely to be enough to save Scott. But if his performance, and that of the Raiders more generally, doesn’t improve, his spot will be the first position to change.