The problem with the Canberra Raiders’ injury list isn’t so much the size but the specificity.
Sia Soliola and Corey Horsburgh are likely gone for the season. Scans are still to come for Emre Guler and the Canberra hierarchy is hopeful, but it’s rare for a dude to be carried from the field and be back quickly. Missing John Bateman means that Hudson Young can’t cover middle minutes. Add to that the release of Royce Hunt in the off-season, and JJ Collins, Jack Murchie and Luke Bateman in the break and suddenly the Raiders are down to four middle forwards, a utility hooker and development players. Oh and they’re coming up against two of the baddest packs in the competition in coming weeks.
It’s moments like these that Ricky Stuart has to earn his coin. It’s a massive change in a few weeks. After the Tigers game we were excited for the sudden depth the Raiders had. Now we have the opposite problem. In the medium term the Milk will likely bring in a couple of middles on deals for the rest of the season. But that can only be done so quickly, and if neither JJ Collins or Luke Bateman is in playing shape (I literally have no idea) then newcomers will need time to acclimatise before they can simply be shoehorned into the starting 17.
In the short term the challenge the Raiders have isn’t so much coming up with more middle forwards out of thin air, but working out how they are going to cover 240 middle minutes next week. Hudson Young and Elliott Whitehead (if healthy…god please be healthy) will play 80 minutes on the edges. Josh Hodgson will play 80 at dummy-half. But how are the Raiders going to cover the 240 in the middle?
Josh Papalii is going to cover 55 of these and do it with style and grace (or more accurately power and passion). Ryan Sutton played 56 minutes last week, and we’ve often spoke that these larger volumes of minutes are more his game. His first hit up is as strong as his last, and while he might not hit 10 on the Richter scale on a run, he’ll give you a solid 8 the whole game. It’s a valuable skill, particular right now.
Those two I’m pretty solid on, but that’s only 110 minutes of 240. It’s hard to tell what Joe Tapine can give you in the middle. On the edge he was averaging 73 minutes and 39 tackles a game (or 0.53 tackles a minute). In his return from injury in the middle last week he had 34 minutes and 23 tackles (or 0.67 tackles a minute). On the edge he averaged 0.11 runs a minute for 1.2 metres per minute (or 10.3 metres a carry). In his middle effort Friday it was 0.32 runs per minute at 3.29 metres per minute (and 10.2 metres a carry). On these numbers you can see his work rate is much higher in the middle.
There’s a lot of things here. First all these numbers are a nothing sample size. We could look at last year’s numbers but it feels like they wouldn’t be reflective of this seasons’ unique situation. Secondly it’s hard to tell if Tapine only played 34 minutes because of how much production he got through, or if that was designed to ease him back from his knee injury. Did he seemed tired to you? I only saw him get lazy as a middle defender once in his spell on the field, and he was damn intoxicating running the ball in the middle, bringing some desperately needed pace into the middle. Can he do it for longer?
I wouldn’t write to the Prime Minister with these numbers but I think you can use them to form a hypothesis that Tapine’s work rate in the middle is much higher than on an edge. Asking him to expand his minutes substantially might not be possible, or at the very least would sacrifice the efficiency of his productivity. I think forty minutes is realistic, but then you’ve still got 90 minutes to come up with.
Siliva Havili has been brilliant in recent weeks. He started the season playing low minutes – he didn’t crack 30 minutes in a game until round five. But the past two weeks he’s played 35 and 41 minutes in each game, and pleasingly it’s resulted in no notable drop-off in either his tackle per minute ratio (0.44 tackles per minute in games under 30 minutes verse 0.62 tackles per minute in games over 30 minutes) or his metres per run (10.2 metres per run in games under 30 minutes verse 9.8 metres per run in games over 30 minutes). Again it’s small sample size theatre, and can’t account for the differing pace, and the different role he was playing in those games. But it does indicate that expecting Havili to puch out 35-40 minutes against Melbourne or the Roosters wouldn’t be a stretch.
If you can get 40 minutes out of both Tapine and Havili then the Raiders still need to find 50 more minutes from middle forwards. Dunamis Lui hasn’t played since round five, so if anything he’ll be fresh. Lui offers good tackle efficiency (98% in 2020 according the the League Live app) and a solid enough run, but he’s hardly a line breaker. He rarely plays big minutes though, only once cracking 40 minutes this year, and his role last year was similar. His best use is tying up the middle in the beginning and end of games. He can give you a handy 35 minutes of defensive speciality.
This leaves us with a critical 15-20 minutes of production needed in the middle. Against the best sides in the competition, and given how exhausted they were last week, the Raiders need to use the entirety of their roster in the coming weeks.
So far what we’ve outlined are all pretty conventional solutions. After this though there’s not much in the way of clear answers. Bailey Simonsson has familiarity with spending 15 minutes or so game of out-and-out utility work. Jordan Rapana would love to take carries as a middle forward but I’m not certain the career winger has the defensive nuances of slowing down big forwards like Nelson Asofa-Solomona. Curtis Scott spent some time as an edge forward on the weekend, but that felt more the Raiders taking an opportunity to get into the game to avoid destroying his already shattered confidence. He didn’t do anything wrong but he hardly looked comfortable. I suspect Michael Oldfield will be retained at the centre position at least for this week.
If you want some more ‘out-of-the-box’ suggestions perhaps Sam Williams could come off the bench and move Jack Wighton into the middle for a spell. Similarly Tom Starling could come into the 17, Hodgson shift to lock as he did often in 2017 and 2018 with Kurt Baptise. Either Simonsson or Rapana could come on and move Cotric inside. All of these create as many problems as they solve, in particular destroying the ever-fraying cohesion and continuity the Raiders squad has had over the last 18 months.
Beyond the immediate playing group lurks Kai O’Donnell. I know nothing of Kai, other than he started as a development player this year and was upgraded to the main group when JJ Collins, Luke Bateman and Jack Murchie left the club during the Coronavirus break. He’s not massive (98kgs) and a second-rower, and while it may tempt to give him 15 minutes on an edge and move Whitehead or Young into the middle, the precarious nature of the Milk’s edge defence would suggest this is not a good idea. It would be brutal to play your first game against Melbourne’s massive props, but maybe O’Donnell could play 15 minutes reinforcing the middle? It’s a tough ask.
There’s no good solution here until the Raiders get reinforcements in the door. In the meantime finding those 15 minutes in the middle is going to have to be a patchwork of flawed solutions that can’t possibly be as good as having legit forwards available. They would wish they had established players available to fill in against the best teams in the competition. Unfortunately that option isn’t available to the Green Machine right now. They’ll just have to make do.
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