The Right Goes Full Circle?

BY DAN

The right edge has been a conundrum for the 2020 Canberra Raiders. With a rotating cast there’s been an inability to build anything that has felt consistent on either side of the ball. This is even more concerning on defence, something that has been a big weapon for the Milk over the last 18 months. There’s no perfect solution, and it seems likely to Raiders injury crisis will need them to go back to where they started the year.

Of course inconsistency in personnel isn’t the only cause . The 2019 version also saw much change. In 2020 George Williams has started every game at 7. Hudson Young and Joe Tapine are the only players to partner Curtis Scott or Michael Olfield at centre. Nic Cotric started the season at right wing before shifting to the left. But the changes (and absences) this year have felt like they’ve had more impact on the teams’ structure.

The most obvious fault-line has been in the centre. George Williams has been fine at halfback. Fast players can sometimes get outside him, but I doubt there’s a halfback in the competition not susceptible to that. Hudson Young continues to develop, and is showing an ability to help across to Williams, mimicking what Bateman used to do, and what Smelly Whitehead has always done. All that remains is to find stability outside them.

Scott looked promising before the break, and even in the immediate aftermath. But over the next few weeks he vacillated between being uncharacteristically tenuous and reckless in his defensive decisions. It culminated with him being dropped in favour Oldfield. We won’t argue the case here in depth, because for a few weeks it was all any Raiders’ media talked about.

The decision to switch to Oldfield surprised me, if only because he is so perfectly suited to the wing. He’s not a big contact guy like BJ Leilua, which can often paper over less than perfect technique. It means whoever is on his inside needs to be lights out in defence. Given that’s a guy is almost always the smallest guy on the park, it’s a lot to ask. Still, Oldfield did fine considering. He wasn’t perfect, and Euan Aitken made him look shaky at a couple of different times in the Dragons game. Even if he was fallible, he was still a decent stop-gap while the Raiders identified a long-term solution. But then he didn’t come back after half-time in the Roosters game after suffering a minor hamstring complaint. The Green Machine’s luck showed when they announced he’d be out for 2-3 weeks.

After halftime Jordan Rapana filled in for Oldfield, allowing Semi Valeima to come on in his natural position on the wing. It was the right decision by Coach Stuart. To me the centre position is the hardest defensive position (alongside hooker and fullback) in the game. You’re at the whim of the ability of inside defenders to cut off space, and have to make split-second decisions as to when to come in on a all-or-nothing mission to get the ball. Even the best get made to look silly.

Jordy is not a centre and never has been, and it showed. He was aggressive, but often couldn’t backup his decisions with good contact. So the opposition found metres, quick rucks, and then breaks running at him. Semi had never played with him, and often bore the brunt of this, as he and Young tried to cover the mistakes. The Roosters’ last try, and one called back, both started with Rapana falling off a tackle. The Raiders’ right held on, but I suspect it won’t be the preferred option in the future.

Rapana wasn’t the only option Stuart had Thursday night. Nic Cotric remains ensconced on the left wing. I speculated this was due to the success he’s had with Croker and Whitehead outside Jack Wighton. This is part of the story, but then so is his move to the Bulldogs. He’s the best solution for 2020, but Coach Stuart may be wary of weakening a strength to strengthen a weakness. He also may have half an eye on the future.

While ‘future’ may lead you to think we see Harley Smith-Shields soon, this doesn’t feel likely. Smith-Shields hasn’t made an appearance in a Raiders’ 21 this year, much to my bemusement. I’m not sure if he’s injured or if there’s another set of circumstances a quick google of him name doesn’t bring up. He’s talented enough to be playing first grade, particularly given the dearth of options available. You’d think Canberra would want to get him some game time, if only to make sure they have another body with match fitness. I mean, how could you not want this in your side.

But it’s a big ask to debut and asked to fix the defensive problems of more experienced players. It also seems unrealistic to bring in a(nother) rookie to a squad full of them. He’s not played a minute of football in months. While the list of players that have survived without match fitness is growing, it still seems unlikely that his first game would be 80 minutes at such a tough position.

There is real potential the Raiders may circle back to square one with Curtis Scott. He’s had some time off in recent weeks. Hopefully it’s allowed him to regain the aggressiveness he played the opening rounds with. At that time I saw the potential Sticky did. He wasn’t perfect but he was building a relationship with George Williams and had enough talent to make him worth persisting with. I’m not sure what happened between the Storm and Knights games, but he went from wolf to a recently picked up shelter puppy. Scott remains a project. He’s got a 4 year contract, so the Raiders are going to have to find a way to get the best of him.

It’s an interesting decision facing Sticky. He could go with papering over the cracks (Rapana), weakening a strength (Cotric), the future (Smith-Shields) or back to square one. For a team with an injury list as long as the Green Machine’s the array of options is actually somewhat heartening. Having plenty of imperfect options is just par for the course for the Raiders these days.

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