Another Day, Another Challenge

BY DAN

Another game, another injury. Another challenge, another set of imperfect solutions. It could be any other week in recent times. This time it’s Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad who is going to spend two weeks on the sidelines, joining everyone in Canberra a full forward pack and a couple of stray outside backs there. Yet again the Raiders’ roster is poised to handle it, yet again the solutions are imperfect.

Nicoll-Klokstad of course, has been a revelation in Canberra, transitioning so fast from ‘speculative add-on’ to ‘future building block’ in a single throbbing heartbeat of your enamoured author. He’s a strong and eager ball runner. His kick return is often noted, and his work in yardage in second to none. He doesn’t limit this work to ‘backs’ sets that often accompany the Milk coming off their own line. He also gets involved in ‘forwards’ sets, often taking the third carry of a set after Papalii and another prop have done their work. His creativity as a second man outside Wighton and Williams on sweeps remains a work in process (as we’ve noted in these pages ad nauseum) but he’s made enough progress in 2020 to suggest it’s worth persisting with. He’s been shakier under the high ball this season than last, a perplexing change who’s sudden arrival suggests a confidence issue more than any technical problems.

His best work however, is done as the spak-filler in theRaiders defence. When Wighton moved into the front-line I noted that the Milk would be unable to find someone to reprise his role as chief bacon-saver. Nicoll-Klokstad, while not as physically imposing as Wighton, has done a similar job. There are so many examples, and it’s become so regular that when he was unable to stop Dane Gagai sliding in coverage this weekend I was surprised. While John Bateman, Jack Wighton and a faster pack are often pointed to as being the chief cause of the Green Machine’s defensive improvement, Charnze has also been integral in this.

If the solution was to simply to mach the best of these qualities then bringing Jordan Rapana into the spot makes the most sense. He was Coach Stuart’s first preference against the Rabbitohs, and gives much of the hard-running yardage work and diligent defence you expect from Charnze. He even went one better with a tremendous try saver against Souths. As a fellow back three member he’s relatively capable under the high ball. He’ll be best used running powerful lines around Wighton and Whitehead on the left (and as I said in the review, may reprise those beautiful lines Jack used to run inside Smelly or Croker). If there’s a limitation of his ability at this position it’s that he’s even less developed than Nicoll-Klokstad as a ball-player, but probably twice as keen to try. Given it’s likely a short-term spot, he’ll have no time to develop that skill either. It’s not a death knell for the offence, but an adjustment that will need to be made.

Sticky’s second option was Nic Cotric and he offers many of the charms of Rapana. Getting Nic around the ball a bit more makes a lot of sense – he’s impossible to tackle, and could really turn some middle defenders to dust with his powerful fend and quick step. He’s probably the safest under the high ball, and as capable as any in yardage work. Whether or not he’s the defender Charnze or Jordy is at fullback is not clear to me, but he’s robust when given a shot in the front-line. He’s similarly limited as a ball player – anyone that remembers him trying to execute a basic left-to-right pass to Croker against the Roosters last year can attest to that.

Casting a wider net, Harley Smith-Shields could be an option, though with only limited experience in first grade it seems cruel to put him such a crucial defnesive position. So much of the roll of the fullback is ensuring the positioning of defenders matches the opposition attacking formations. This often requires identifying attacking movements before they happen (as well as being confident enough in those decisions to adjust the defensive numbers accordingly.. Smith-Shields’ 20 minutes in first grade wouldn’t be enough time to build the skills it takes to make those decisions (though that’s not to say he doesn’t already have them). Another ‘left-field’ solution would be to bring Jack Wighton back to fullback, and he could do the job, but no one else can do the job he does at six (either offensively and defensively). You’d be making such a defensive sacrifice that it would outweigh any benefit gained from his play back there. And that doesn’t even speak to the backwards-ass concept of weakening your primary ball-playing position to strengthen a secondary one.

This should be the chief consideration. Each of these solutions involves a trade-off, dragging someone from the front-line to the back. Who is most important to the front line and how do you balance that with what they’ll give at the back? Moving Wighton from the front-line removes one of the most important defenders. Moving Cotric removes the only experienced right centre. Moving Rapana moves the most experienced outside back from his preferred position. In terms of keeping the disruptions to a minimum, there’s no good solution.

The likely outcome is the Raiders will have to play Smith-Shields and Valeima until the rest of the injured backline finds a way back to health. It seems best to put them in position they are comfortable with, rather than squeezing them in around experienced players who can handle many of these positions without too much fuss. That would lead to the first choice of Rapana to the back, Smith-Shields to right centre, Nic Cotric to the wing. There have also been suggestions that John Bateman may play right centre, which would be excellent if he’s healthy. It would allow Cotric to stay on the wing with Rapana at the back. Smith-Shields could still be carried as a spare back on the bench (the Raiders’ luck suggests they need the coverage), which is a more reasonable approach to acclimatising him to first grade.

Irrespective of choice, it’s another challenge for the Milk. After having to manufacture a forward pack for so many weeks, they’re now having to MacGyver a backline from rookies and second rowers. It’s not ideal, but nothing about 2020 is. Canberra will just have to do like they’ve been doing, and like we’ve all been doing this year: find a way through.

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