After another impressive performance on the weekend, most observers of the Canberra Raiders now consider Tom Starling moving to starting hooker to be a fait acommpli. It’s not that Siliva Havili has done a bad job, just there’s a superior – and notably faster – option on the bench ready to hyper-charge the Green Machine. So what’s he doing on the bench?
It’s silly to argue that Starling hasn’t been an positive addition to the lineup. He presents a very different offering to current starter Siliva Havili. Better and more varied service is critical to getting the Raiders’ forwards more time and space before the line. A nifty running threat means ABC defenders always have to be wary of him taking off around retreating markers. His ability to engage markers, such a beneficial skill of injured star Josh Hodgson, is unquestionably superior to Havili. Finally, his ability to play with width, while not on Hodgson’s level, is a good enough facsimile to allow the Milk to move the point of attack with ease. According to the great @theScorsizzler on twitter, the Green Machine Podcast’s official numbers genius, Canberra have outscored sides 74-22 while Tommy Boy has been on the field. Just get him on the goddamn field right?
So what has kept him on the bench?
There’s an assumption that Havili is doing something wrong, but I don’t think this is right. He has not failed; the Raiders attack has averaged a try every 27 minutes while he’s been at hooker, compared to a try every 21 minutes when Starling has taken the reigns. This seems like a big difference, but given Starling’s number increases to one in 39 minutes when you remove the Broncos game, you can see why this statistic is of less use. For reference, the Green Machine scored 1 try for every 25 minutes Josh Hodgson was on the field.
Rather, Havili is a key cog in a very deliberate decision to play tight to the ruck in attack, and hopefully hold the middle, early in the games. Canberra are banking on tiring teams with big middles before unleashing a pace and space attack against tiring forwards. ‘Liva takes the reigns early when the defences are at their most spry, offloads are rare and the focus has been on battling powerful packs into a standstill before the pace on the bench can take advantage. Havili wears the brunt of opposition middles in defence, using his size advantage to support the Raiders pack which has had a hard time defensively holding the fort against the best packs this year. This desire to hold the middle with Siliva has taken primacy over any other concern. It kept Starling out of the Panthers game until mid-way through the second half, and out of the Broncos game until the 33rd minute.
This strategy has merit, even if it is conservative. If the Raiders are going to persist with this gameplan, it makes sense they don’t want to force Starling into the game for the first twenty minutes of bash and smash footy – there is a greater-than-zero risk that moving Starling to the starting lineup could weaken the forward rotations. It means he’s taking the biggest baddest forwards on at their most energetic, reducing the effectiveness of his run, and making his life hardest in defence. Depending on how that goes, it could also weaken his ability to support the faster second rotation. Bringing him on as part of the pace rotation not only lets him play to his strengths (and Havili to his), but also provides Canberra with a variability in their style that they’ve struggled to create at many times in 2020. The Broncos game put this in stark contrast, as the relative pace (and offloads) of Tapine and Haraweara-Naera tore the Broncos middle apart. Starling played his role, taking the metres when they were there, and allowing the Milk to play with greater width as the game opened up.
This strategy may be a well founded explanation for why Starling has yet to start, but insufficient explanations for why he is being held out until late in the first, or well into the second half of the game. Even following the conservative gameplan it seems Starling should spend more time on the field, and he should be coming on with the first rotation forwards, rather than following them later in the game. The reluctance to bring him on when the Raiders are losing the middle may make logical sense but is not supported by his actual performance. No team has scored twice against Canberra while he’s manning the middle (again, from the great @theScorsizzler).
This also doesn’t preclude a change in approach for the Raiders. It remains available to them to try and jump a team, starting with Papalii, Tapine and/or Harawira-Naera as middle forwards in an attempt to blow a side off the park with pace and creative middle play. In this circumstance it would make sense to start Starling. This is an option that they may hold up their sleeve until a key moment, but I think they should consider using sooner. This could be part of unlocking their attack against proper football sides (i.e. not the Broncos who bring shame to the competition).
There is a real question as to whether the Raiders could sustain this pace and space approach for a full 80 minutes. With the injuries to their middles they simply do not have enough forwards with the pace of Tapine and Harawira-Naera. Starting Lui and Sutton on the bench would just mean that Canberra are slower in the middle 40 of the game. A return of Guler, Soliola and Horsburgh (who, aren’t fast, but are definitely faster than Lui or Sutton) may allow Coach Stuart to rethink this approach.
Ultimately Starling is a victim of strategy and game plan; a desire (and a need) to win the middle early before unleashing pace and space in the second unit. Only time will tell how wedded to that idea the Milk are, and whether returning troops alter that approach. In the end Starling might force Coach Stuart to reconsider his game day strategy. In the background of all this is the fact he’s off contract at the end of the year. Hopefully a new contract is being sorted soon.
A new contract and forcing the coach in a strategic rethink? Not bad for a third string dummy-half.
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