The Raiders got terrible news when reports emerged Sunday night that heartthrob Corey Horsburgh’s foot injury was potentially a severe one, potentially ruling him out for 12 plus weeks. The results of scans are yet to be released, but anyone who saw the obvious emotion after the incident with Ryan Matterson will know that Corey felt serious pain. This is a big blow to the Raiders. They lose one of their best forwards at a crucial time in the season. The only silver lining is it could open up a faster pack more suited to the current playing conditions.
In a year of ups and downs, Horsburgh has been one of the Raiders’ most consistent performers. He has been strong with both his metres in attack, and a massive workload in defence. As we showed here, Horsburgh is one of the hardest working forwards in the competition, let alone the Raiders. He has also been the Green Machine’s most consistent source of second phase play. His 12 offloads dwarf anyone else in the pack, something that the Milk have sorely lacked in 2020. Make no mistake, this is (yet another) blow to Canberra’s finals aspirations.
There is depth behind Horsburgh. Emre Guler’s emergence, Ryan Sutton’s return to first grade, and Siliva Havili’s ongoing reliability give the Raiders the cattle to cover for Corey. Add to this that Dunamis Lui is sitting on the bench (for now), and the Milk will have able replacements. They won’t be able to replace Horsburgh’s workrate, his offload, or his passion, but they’ll be able to keep the pack competitive.
It does thin the ranks though. With Horsburgh and Bateman on the sidelines, Coach Stuart’s desire to pursue a rotation policy to get some rest into the forwards’ tired legs is now out the door. Lui’s defensive efforts will become increasingly important, and it seems wise for him to reprise his role of taking the ‘shine’ off the ball in the first twenty minutes of the game, and allow the Raiders to keep power on the bench. Ryan Sutton will get a bigger role and might get starting minutes at lock if the Raiders want to stay big. He hasn’t disappointed since his return, and he strikes me as a more suited to a volume role than one as an impact player. He could start at prop, allowing Soliola to lead the bench brigade with Guler.
More interestingly, another option would result in a profound change in how the Raiders pack has been structured in 2020. This season Canberra have carried a bigger lock than previously. This has been somewhat out of necessity, as Joe Tapine, who staffed the position often in 2019, had been filling in on the right edge until his injury last week. But part of the reason Horsburgh (and Sia Soliola in one game) filled that role in 2020 was to face the problems caused by the size of the Knights, Sea-Eagles and Parramatta.
Horsburgh’s injury, and Hudson Young’s relatively successful return against the Eels, frees up Tapine to return to lock. This adjustment could work for the Raiders. They’ve appeared slow compared to their oppositions in recent weeks. A reorientation of their approach is required. Bringing more pace into the middle of the park in the form of Tapine (and Young) could result in the Raiders playing with more pace, getting quicker rucks, and a bigger emphasise on second phase play. Tapine is too fast for big men, and can happily turn a dead set around just with his footwork at the line. His offload is as dangerous as Horsburgh’s, and if Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is hanging around it could provide him with a litany of opportunities around the ruck. A quicker pace in the middle could also unlock Josh Hodgson’s play, allowing him more of the momentum and space that he turned into Josh Papalii’s try against the Eels. We’ve seen how critical and effective Elliott Whitehead has been in recent weeks – the pace and dexterity he plays with at the line is a big part of this; he always threatens the line, and he always finds a quick ruck because of it. Maybe a greater emphasis on this is a way forward.
In defence, Tapine will not be able to replace Horsburgh’s workload, but he can lay a brute of a hit, and will be a welcome addition to the Raiders middle. Of course, much of this relies on the health of Tapine, who missed the Eels game with an injury of his own. This seemed less serious – he was running late in the week and is reportedly likely to play in round 8. It’s also a risk to put this much on Young after his second game back from a lengthy suspension. I’m confident that if he was given the role on the right edge he would thrive.
That’s not to say the Raiders are better off without Corey. With Young’s return, the Green Machine were always going to add more pace to their middle. They would have preferred to do it either with Horsburgh at starting prop, or by bringing him on as the lead forward in the second rotation. Now they are almost forced into it by circumstance. It also presents a challenge of bringing Horsburgh and Bateman into the side late in the season. While they could add important fresh legs, they could easily be off the pace with no other options to gain match fitness.
Horsburgh’s injury is another blow for the Raiders. But it presents an opportunity to bring a new look to the middle. This would be a smart move – in 2020 the work of the pack has lacked spark and pace. Bringing Tapine to the middle could be just what they need to get going. It’s just a shame it took losing Big Red for it to happen.
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