Starling Weighs His Options

BY DAN

When the Canberra Raiders tabled a one-year offer to Tom Starling they were hoping it would be sufficient to keep him in green. Starling has said he won’t make a decision until the season is over, but is keen to stay in Canberra. But the longer a decision takes, and the more he continues to perform, the less likely he is to stay.

Starling only joined the Raiders for 2019 because his best mate Hudson Young put in a good word for him. Canberra gave him the third string hooker spot, I doubt ever expecting him to be the revelation he’s been. Last year he went under the radar, but some consistent minutes in 2020 were quick to change anyone’s mind that didn’t think he was up to it. A one-year offer soon followed from Canberra.

You can see how a short deal makes sense from Canberra’s perspective. It means they have cover for Josh Hodgson should he not return from injury at full throttle next year. It also means they don’t have to threaten their long-term cap space on a position they were already two-deep at. It keeps open the long-term position to talent already in the pipeline. Further, they are able to revisit Starling’s place in their plans at the end of next year, should circumstances change with Hodgson, or their future plans. The temptation to offer more years would be strong, but given Starling may be ready to start now, extra years as Hodgson’s understudy may not be appealing.

Fortunately and unfortunately for Canberra, Starling has continued his exemplary play since the offer was made, and could be playing himself into bigger offers from elsewhere. Whereas he started the season as a third-string ruck-raider, now he’s proven himself a capable of manning the position as a full-time hooker. At the beginning of the season Starling wasn’t sure what his future held. Now has a rare opportunity to find himself a a stable future.

You can understand if he wants to take advantage. The choice may be between playing NSW cup (or Canberra Cup) in the Canberra system, or big money and security elsewhere. While learning from Hodgson has been a big part of Starling’s success, there’s a limit to the time one might be willing to wait and watch, especially now that he knows he’s good enough to succeed in first grade.

While the ‘push’ factors are strong, the aspects that may pull him away from Canberra are even stronger. 2020 has proven that there is a dearth of hookers capable of playing first grade footy. More than one teams finals prospects have been hampered by their inability to find effective play out of dummy half. Manly, Gold Coast, Canterbury, Wests Tigers, Brisbane and Newcastle Knights have all suffered injuries at nine that would have been ably filled by Tom. Only Brisbane and Newcastle will have filled that hole for next year. Suddenly Starling is the only option outside of the Cameron/Brandon/Harry Grant love triangle that teams may pursue. His style of play would suit many sides, and in particular he would fit in perfectly as the maestro of the faster Titans pack next year. This is all complicated by the lack of clarity on the 2021 salary cap, but when that number is landed, look for the offers to come.

For his part Starling has consistently reiterated his desire to stay in Canberra, most recently to Alicia Newton of NRL.com.

“I don’t want any distractions coming with that sort of stuff and just want to focus on my role with a few games left remaining but I’m keen to stay on for sure

Tom Starling to Alicia Newton of NRL.com

Staying in Canberra, playing with his good mates for a team that can compete in the finals may not be money or security, but if Starling trusts his ability, it may be a good decision to make. He’s not fully formed yet, and given the direction of the game, there will likely be just as much demand for his talents next season. But it would be a risk – one that I feel conflicted about wanting him to take – you only get so long in top flight footy after all. It’s a tough decision for Tom, and while his loyalty and friendships lie in Canberra, one couldn’t blame him if he chose to leave.

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