For weeks we’ve been speculating as to how the Canberra Raiders would fill out their roster, and what that would mean for the season. With the rumoured signing of Corey Harawira-Naera and the loan deal for Ethan Bullemor the Raiders have revealed their plan for their pack. They intend to get quicker.
It’s not hard to understand why. The new set restart rule has meant defences are often forced into long sets in defence; almost like rugby union, if rugby union defences had to retreat. Big defenders can get lost in this style of football, as sides pound the ball up the middle, tiring them into submission. Players like Matt Lodge, previously seen as future representative players, are suddnelty struggling. For the Raiders their defence has been able to handle this. In a sense they were already small, and they’ve only been overwhelmed when big packs like the Knights and Parramatta have run over them.
But this isn’t just about defence. All season the Raiders’ forward pack has had to scrap to make an indentation. Josh Papalii has been left to shoulder much of the load, and that’s only increased with the injury list that has been amassed. Now with Josh Hodgson’s ability to manipulate the ruck out for the season, they’ve been forced to look for alternative ways to get set momentum and metres.
Joe Tapine’s return to the middle has been a boon in that regard. Each week his minutes and production have trended up (broadly). His dexterity compared to regular middle defenders mean he get half a tackle break on almost every play, hitting the ground in the advantage and rising for a quick ruck. He took runs on 17.38% of the Green Machine’s plays while he was on the field (third best in the competition for players that played more than 40 minutes. Shouts to @carlosthedwarf for this stat). His success in the middle is part talent, part shift in the game that rewards middle forwards that can create broken rucks and take advantage of the space that exists as middle defenders tire.
Harawira-Naera and Bullemor are both players that operate with a premium on pace. Harawira-Naera began his career as an outside back, and the Daily Telegraph breathlessly reported that Bullemor is faster than David Fifita. They both fit into the archetype of forward the Raiders have increasingly been picking up in recent years – quick feet at the line, mobile in defence and able to play big minutes. Harawira-Naera adds a bit of creativity with the ball to that as well.
Bullemor won’t be around beyond this season (it’s a loan deal with the Broncos) and so it seems likely he’s more of a depth pick-up. I’m not too excited – in his rare outings for the Broncos this year he’s vacillated between not very good and ooh boy. He’s worth a shot because the Raiders need bodies right now, and in all likelihood he’ll be back at Red Hill next year. But he fits the theory – get quicker.
Harawira-Naera has been locked in for two years in addition to the rest of this season. In the short term he’ll likely fill in as more pace in the middle, with John Bateman likely taking over the right edge position from Hudson Young. Suddenly the conversation about the Green Machine’s bench goes from who’s in to who’s missing out *cross fingers that no one else gets hurt*.
In all likelihood one of Young, Tapine and Harawira-Nera will start at lock, with the other two providing impact off the bench. The options are endless. Most exciting is the thought of the Raiders being able to play a version of ‘small-ball’, with all three on the field at the same time with Bateman and Whitehead. Send this out for a test run at the end of a half and see if teams can keep up. At the very least it should provide Papalii with a bit of respite from shouldering the load. Players like Kai O’Donnell, who probably got promoted ahead of their time, can go back to development, with the knowledge of what’s needed at the top level.
Over the longer term there’s a question over who covers the right-edge. Both Harawira-Naera and Young have claims, and both can also play as dynamic middle forwards. It’s a good problem to have, speeding up the Raiders’ ruck attack while also expanding its depth at crucial positions. Young is early in his career and his Kiwi team-mate is an established international backrower so most would argue Young should move back to cover the middle rotation next year. That seems the most likely outcome, and I’ve seen enough unattributed comments in the articles announcing this to suggest the Milk see him as the long-term replacement for Bateman.
I have to admit this saddens me – I think Young is a prodigious talent, and should be given the opportunity to make the right edge his own for as long as possible. I think he’s a better defender than the Kiwi. Harawira-Naera had the 3rd most missed tackles in the competition in 2019 (5.1 a game). Despite having a rotating cast outside him, Young has nailed 90.4% of his tackles in 2020. That’s John Bateman levels of efficiency (for comparison, Elliott Whitehead’s tackling efficiency is 88.4%). Young isn’t the exciting ball player that Harawira-Neara can be, and he’s not as damaging a runner as yet, but he’s only 21 and could be a 10 year, 80 minutes a game stalwart on the edge if given a chance to develop. But then we all have our favourites. The good thing is the Raiders have edge depth again, and don’t have to sacrifice their middle to meet it.
However you slice it, the Raiders have picked up some important talent and depth this week. Beyond just names on paper, Canberra have shown they’ve got a plan to get better, to adjust for a new(ish style dictated new rules and injuries to key players. The cavalry has come, and it’s fast.
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