Ryan James and a better place to be

BY DAN

A deal bringing Ryan James to Canberra has been finalised. The benefits and risks are clear for each side. The Raiders take on a health risk with upside, and James gets to play an established roster. Only time will tell if it will work out, but for both parties it’s a good risk to take.

The Gold Coast Titans are currently conducting a fire sale, presumably to find the cap space to make sure they can rebuild their roster around David Fifita. It’s a unique situation and one that good teams can often use to their advantage, prising away useful talent that doesn’t fit the plan of the home side. James won’t be the last player to walk out the Titans’ door; but he may well be the best.

It’s the second time in weeks the Milk have taken on such an asset and used them to fill a gap in the roster. In purely skill terms, James represents an extra strong middle forward with quick feet, as likely to ball-play before the line as he is to run a strong middle ruck. He’s the kind of player that will love working with Josh Hodgson, running strong lines on the other side of rucks as the crafty rake sends defenders the wrong way. He also gets through plenty of work – he was 30th in the league in runs in 2018, and made the 8th most tackles in the competition. Those 928 tackles were over 200 more than the most prolific Raiders that season (Smelly with 706) and would have been more than every Milkman other than Josh Hodgson (965) in 2019. He’ll easily get through 40 tackles in a game and it won’t hurt his offensive production. It’s been a while since Canberra have had a middle forward that can absorb that much work. The price for that is normally higher than his reported 400k a year salary.

His presence will take pressure off Josh Papalii, giving the Green Machine another middle that can bend the line on the regular. This could be critical in elongating Papalii’s career, because right now he’s doing a truckload of work keeping the Canberra pack competitive.

James will also be another mentor to the young brigade coming through like Emre Guler, Corey Horsburgh and Ryan Sutton, and with only a two year deal he’ll likely play a role that complements there development rather than stands in there way. In addition, he’s an indigenous leader and I think that having more leadership support for young indigenous players like Jack Wighton can only be helpful.

If there is a criticism of his on-field performance it’s that he has often been credited with ill-discipline. To a degree this is true. It’s as much a function of his work rate than any tendency to foul play. He gave away 1 penalty every 37 tackles in 2018. For comparison, Joe Tapine gives away a penalty every 43 tackles. It’s not coach-killing stuff, and could have been driven by the fact he was desperately trying to slow a ruck pace the rest of his team had allowed (think the latter years of Shaun Fensom).

Another concern is obviously his recent injury history. It’s frankly horrid. Multiple ACL injuries have crippled his play over 2019 and 2020 so there remains a very real risk that his body is in a similar shape to mine (i.e not fit for contest). There’s also a risk that he’ll re-injure his ACL – the liklihood of recurrence of ACL injuries increases between 3-6% for the same knee and 9-12% for the other knee. While the Raiders are taking a gamble that his knees will hold up, it’s less of a financial risk than the Milk have invested in Josh Hodgson, who’ll also be returning from his second ACL injury in 2021. Hodgson is a much more unique talent to replace, but if James doesn’t work out there’s plenty in Canberra’s roster to cover for it.

Ultimately the gamble is the nature of the game. You don’t get these deals without taking a risk, otherwise everyone would sign Ryan James. He could play 40 plus games over the life of the two-year deal at 50 minutes a game. Or he could be done before he starts next year. I suspect we’ll know quickly in 2021 which version we’ve got. For his part Ryan seems remarkably confident in his body.

The only question remaining is whether James’ arrival has an impact on the current list of off-contract stalwarts. It’s hard to know what sort of “war chest” the Raiders are working with, and whether they’ve blown their load too early on James and Harawira-Naera to keep them around.

Sia Soliola, Tom Starling and Michael Oldfield are off contract and Siliva Havili has a player-option for 2021. Soliola is also a leader, and while his body is willing he remains a critical part of the success of the Green Machine engine room. Starling and Havili both have important roles in the squad that if they play their cards right this season they may outgrow them. Oldfield has been given a chance as a starter and succeed and their may be pressure to keep him in the squad.

It’s another risk – or perhaps an opportunity cost – of potentially upgrading the roster, but James offers an upside in both talent and leadership the Green Machine could ill afford to ignore. It’s rare that you get a chance to pick up a player of this quality, even less that he’s deliberately drawn to the Raiders as a place to win.

As recently as Nic Cotric’s decision to leave we said it seemed like those heady six months (between Curtis Scott’s arrival and the depature of John Bateman and Cotric’s) where Canberra was a ‘destination’ were over. Ryan James is hardly a “coming into his prime” Cotric but he does demonstrate that while that period might have ended, the Milk aren’t out of players’ considerations as much as I suggested. It’s a better place to be, for the Raiders reputation, for their roster, and for James.

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