The Canberra Raiders have suffered so many setbacks in this year that it’s starting to resemble an epsiode of Australian Story. Lost critical players to injury? Check. Lost players they’ve built, bought and borrowed to other clubs? Check. Lost multiple first choice players at the same position? Check. Now with Siliva Havili’s injury placing his position up in the air, they’ve potentially even lost the serviceable back-ups and depth that Coach Stuart and list manager Peter Mulholland have worked so smartly to create.
Each of these injuries have opened the door for another player. Emre Guler, Sia Soliola and Corey Horsburgh’s injuries meant Dunamis Lui had to take on more responsibility. John Bateman’s injury meant Hudson Young got to display his promise on the edge. Semi Valemei and Harley Smith-Shields got to show their potential through the attrition in the outside backs. And when Josh Hodgson went down, Havili again got a shot to show what a useful back up he is.
Tom Starling was already proving a valuable squad member when the King of Tonga was injured on the weekend. He’s a vastly different player to Havili, a more traditional nine that is able to manipulate markers much more through deception, play with width in attack, and run the ball with great pace when the chance presents.
This could well open up the Canberra Raiders offence. Since Josh Hodgson went down, they’ve struggled in two areas. Firstly, Havili’s lack of creativity around the ruck has put a lot of pressure on the middle forwards to create momentum on their own. Josh Papalii has done this because he is a god amongst men. Dunamis Lui has done it with sheer grit and determination. But it’s too obvious who’s getting the ball, what line they’re running at; and even mediocre sides like the Cowboys and the Bunnies have been able to battle the Milkmen back to their own half more often than not. Starling is not Hodgson, but he’s much better than Havili at keeping the markers, and the A, B and C defenders guessing. This hopefully allows a few extra moments for Papalii and co before contact, and could help the Raiders back into the battle of position they’ve been losing in recent weeks.
The second way Starling could be a boon to the offence is through the width he brings to the attack. Havili’s strength is his ability to attack the defence and play short off either shoulder. This is wonderful to watch but requires a good ruck to implement. The long passes from dummy-half that are such a feature of Hodgson’s game are not part of ‘Liva’s.
Starling has these in the bag. The Milk’s second try against the Panthers came when he hit Wighton with width, allowing him the space to attack the line and put Nicoll-Klokstad into space. This is a very useful skill in the redzone, but it’s also critical in yardage sets, allowing the attacking side to manoeuvre around aggressive middle defenders and take opportunities to attack smaller defenders out wide. It could be a boost for John Bateman in particular, who loves the ball in space; this allows him to make a choice between using his speed or creativity of brute force depending on the defender and circumstance.
But like all substitutions the Green Machine have had to make this year, this is not without its downsides. Much has been made of Starling’s size, and in defence all I’ve seen is someone willing to take it to the opposition with a grit and effectiveness that should be beyond his size. While one can’t question about his ability to stand up to bigger players, a more reasonable question can be asked about his ability to bring them down for the full 80 minutes. The fact that he pound-for-pound the strongest Raider, and barely has an ounce of fat on him should dispel that worry.
Regardless, the coaching staff clearly have at least some trepidation about his ability to handle ferocious middles,. This was evidenced by the fact they held him out of the Panthers game until well into the second half as the Raiders sought to stem the tide rolling against it.
This will be put into stark relief against the massive Broncos pack this week. Starling will need to aim up, and will need the support of the defenders around him. Lui, Young and Papalii will need to protect him early, and Sutton and Tapine in the second rotation. All already get through mountains of defensive work (see how high Sutton and Young were on work-rate below), so this is another step up in endurance they’ll need to make. That will require Sticky to go to his bench earlier than he did in the Panthers game, using Harawira-Naera in particular as part of the rotation, rather than an afterthought.
In addition it would likely bring Kai O’Donnell into the 17. While O’Donnell recently started as a lock, he revealed recently to Beyond the Limelight that he’d trained in the offseason as a hooker as well – ostensibly to provide depth that the Raiders hoped would never come around. Good preparation for a disastrous situation, and if Starling needs no break then he has use as a rotation middle.
Kurt Baptise will be out of the bubble for the next round of football, but his elevation to the main squad will largely depend on the severity of Havili’s injury. One or two weeks and it’s unlikely to be worth it. Six weeks (as reported as a possibility by NRL Physio) and there may be utility in making Baptise the utility; though it would be a massive risk of match fitness. Other options like Sam Williams (and/or shifting George Williams to hooker) sacrifice far too much in defence to be of use. For their part the Raiders are hopeful Havili (according to the Canberra Times) will be right, but their luck this year has been such that I’ll wait for team lists before I get carried away.
Regardless it’s a big time opportunity for Starling. He was only on the Raiders roster because Hudson Young played chief scout for a former teammate. But now he has a chance to establish himself as a legitimate first grade hooker. This could be good for the Green Machine in the short-term, but if Starling is too good it could result in them losing another player this offseason.
For Tom’s sake, and for the Raiders’ 2020 chances let’s hope he shows out. If he does perform so well the Green Machine can’t afford to keep him, we can just add it to the list of setbacks for 2020 they’ll have to overcome.
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