In the last few weeks Joe Tapine has been on a tear. Aided by a style of football that puts winning quick rucks at the heart of success, Tapine has been stepping and driving the Raiders down the park. In recent weeks he’s outgained even the great Josh Papalii regularly, even with limited minutes, and has used his offload to give the Green Machine the second phase play it had previously lacked. It is everything he promised when he joined Canberra in 2016. Is this it? Is Joe Tapine finally reaching his potential?
Since Joe Tapine joined the Raiders for the 2016 season we’ve been waiting for him to show his best regularly. He’s shifted around the ground, going from an edge back-rower, to a starting lock, to a impact forward off the bench. He’s sometimes been good, but not always, and it’s never felt like he settled anywhere. After predicting each year of the last four that this would be his breakout year, we had begun to think he might never be the elite forward we had identified. But recently, he’s given everyone a reason to believe.
Tapine came to Canberra with a (relatively) fair bit of fanfare. The 2015 Raiders were on an upswing, but they were hardly a destination for free agents. It was somewhat of a coup to get such an obviously talented forward from another teams’ development pathway. The Green Machine poaching talent like every other club? Well I never! They’d paid beyond full price to get him, with a contract that was ‘rumoured‘ to be pushing $2 million over three years. Nathan Brown was shocked, let Joe walk out the door and the Raiders had a future star – they hoped.
He initially slotted in on the bench, and filled in as a middle rotation forward. It was clear from the get-go he had talent. Quicker than other middle forwards but with power to match, he could make a break with his feet, or an offload as well as any other forward in the pack. His bruising defence wasn’t always perfect, but it always hurt whoever he hit. He was only 22, and already it was clear the Raiders had a good one. The only thing left was to work out how he fit.
Initially, the move of Josh Papalii to the middle created a hole in the starting side that Tapine would eventually fill. Over 2017 he gradually made the edge his own, and every game he played in 2018 was on the right edge. While he was perfectly good in that position, he never had quite made the leap into ‘great’. He went missing in games, had a tough time covering for the abject mess Blake Austin was in defence next to him, and never quite got over the tendency for boneheaded penalty.
But he was clearly improving. His metres gained in 2018 was up to 92 a game (up from 77 and 88 over 2016 and 2017 respectively), and he had 15 offloads in just 16 games that season. When he nearly beat the Wests Tigers in round 22 of 2018 by himself, it seemed like maybe we were going to finally see the best of Joe. He signed on for a further three months seasons, clearly content that the edge was his best position. After all he’d succeeded over 2017 and 2018 at NRL level. He’d also begun to make the New Zealand side regularly in the second-row. The only way was up.
But 2019 threw his positioning into doubt once more. John Bateman arrived, and suddenly the edge positions were an all-England affair. Tapine was put back into the middle, somewhere he hadn’t played regularly in near 18 months, and asked to thrive again. Again Joe was fine, and had some great moments (that hit on Josh Addo-Carr in the qualifying final), but he didn’t dominate. He averaged on 77 metres a game, his lowest output since he joined the club, and his 7 offloads for the season did not match his capability on that front. He still had a penalty in him (at 1 every 43 tackles he’s the most commonly penalised Raider), and notably managed to get himself tossed for 10 minutes in the ‘Once Upon a Time In Melbourne’ comeback in August.
So when 2020 rolled around it was hard to not wonder if he would ever reach his potential. An injury to John Bateman again saw Tapine making an adjustment for the good of the team. He was moved back to the edge to cover for him, and when it emerged that this would be the Englishman’s last in Canberra, there was at least a thought that maybe it would be a permanent move. He was no slouch there.
But questions still hung in the air. Was this the best use of his skill? The arbitrary law changes made to the game by the autocratic Peter V’Landys had demanded more pace through the middle of the ground. They put a premium on winning the middle and had the ball in play more. The Raiders had also identified Hudson Young as a future backrower, and he hadn’t disappointed in his time there in 2019 or 2020. Would Tapine thrive in another move?
The response, to be frank, has been stunning. Tapine is averaging a career best 114 metres a game this season, but that only tells part of the tale. Since shifting back to the middle permanently he’s cracking 133 a game (147 if take out the debacle at Penrith), with four separate games of 150 plus metres. Not only is he taking metres, but he’s breaking tackles (12 since the move to the middle) and offloading at an elite rate. His 22 offloads for the season are a career best with plenty of rounds to spare, and 14 of them have come since he took up residence as chief destoryer.
All of this work has been critical in propelling the Raiders. After the injuries to Corey Horsburgh, Sia Soliola and Emre Guler, they desperately needed someone to provide another option to Josh Papalii. The pack had been struggling with the emphasis of winning quick rucks that the new rules had brought. Tapine has been able to fill the gap and play with a pace suited to the new style of play.
And more than this, he’s become the leader of a strategic weapon for Canberra. Rather than just trying to compete in the middle, the Raiders now have a set of forwards capable of playing with such rapidity that other teams struggle to keep up. With Hudson Young and Corey Harawira-Naera, Tapine offers an ability for the Milk to deploy their faster men (alongside the already pacey Whitehead and Bateman) can change the game. Against Brisbane they came on at halftime and turned the contest in a heartbeat – Tapine using his offload to create the exact second-phase play the Queenslanders were incapable of corralling. At the Gold Coast last weekend they were sent out early with Ryan Sutton; Joe started exactly where he left off in the Broncos game. His quick feet were a nightmare for the Titans middle defenders, and almost always created a quick play the ball. Nearly 180 metres, 4 tackle breaks and 3 offloads later and he’d been a big part of a Canberra win.
It’s premature to say that Tapine has found his role that can transform him from a good forward into an elite one. But it’s clear that he’s well on his way. He’s found the changing game suits his skills, and he’s grown into the role that he’s made his own. It’s already been a long journey, and maybe Tapine has found his home.
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