Winning Without Papa

BY DAN

As the dust settled on a disappointing loss to the Roosters, Raiders coach Ricky Stuart appeared crestfallen before the waiting media. When asked about Josh Papalii’s AC joint injury he responded he was “concerned” and the fact that Papalii didn’t return meant “he was feeling it.”

If there was a remaining player the Green Machine could ill-afford to lose in the lead up to, or for the duration of, the finals it’s Josh Papalii. He’s the form prop in the competition. He leads Canberra forwards in metres and post contact metres. But those stats are just part of it. He’s the pack’s saviour – the man they turn to when the chips are down. His importance to the Milk cannot he overstated – Sticky’s pale face said as much.

If the advice of NRL physio is anything to go by, at the very least Big Papa will he missing at least two rounds.

It’s Papalii’s injury since….I actually don’t know, and with only three more games remaining in the regular season – all of which are ‘must win’ games – the Green Machine must find a way to approximate his Herculean efforts. And quick.

The good news is that both Ryan Sutton and Joe Tapine are still on board. Sutton continues to excel in big minutes and long rotations. His ability to be a “volume” forward is particularly useful in this scenario. Fifty minute stints at high work rate are no stranger to him – just look at this involvement statistic from Rugby League Eye Test.

Sutton sits among the elite in his ability to continue to produce on both sides of the ball. His big splits don’t seem to have a negative impact on his production, as you can see from the fact he led the completion in involvement for forwards playing over 40 minutes in round 16.

With Papalii out against the Roosters, Sutton punched out a clean 60 minutes, with the majority of them coming in a forty-five minute first rotation. This may be the norm for Sutton over the coming weeks.

Of course it’ll be harder for Sutton if he’s not running on the back of Papa’s quick rucks, but a minor change to how Canberra’s pack operates has been added recently that could protect him from being ganged-up on by opposition defences. Short passing, and the threat of it, most notably working in a pair with Dunamis Lui, provides a dual threat to the defence that prevents defences from dialling in on the ball carrier.

Of course Joe Tapine is a big part of this story too. He’s having a career year, utilising his frankly erotic feet close to the line to break the hearts of defenders across the league. Even the otherwise defensive wall of the Roosters was vulnerable to his charms. His ability to engage edge defenders as a middle should be a huge part of the Raiders goal-line attack, and with Papalii gone this will be even more important.

Tapine played forty-seven minutes against the Roosters, and it’s not clear that his style of play is suited to big minutes, but it’s likely that instead of his usual 30/15 minute split, he’ll be asked to do something more similar to 30/20-25 in order to avoid the dearth of go-forward and threat to the line the Raiders had when he, Sutton and Papalii sat on the bench in the second half.

Of course finding cover for Papalii’s production and minutes means more than just pushing out Tapine and Sutton’s minutes. Bigger roles are coming for Dunmis Lui, Hudson Young, Corey Harawira-Naera and potentially Siliva Havili. Lui has already stepped up at different points this season. It’s quite a change that the Raiders family has gone from hoping to knowing Lui can handle a bigger role. I’m also certain that Young can handle a bigger role than the 30-40 minute spell he’s been putting in as a middle forward recently. He showed great footwork and good metres against the Roosters, and was the most penetrating forward in the second unit, as reflected in his metres per run (9.6m per). He poked his head through and got his left arm free on a few occasions, and has a strength and an offload that could put Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad into space if he offers some support on a few of Young’s carries.

I’m less certain about Harawira-Naera. He certainly has performed like a man that only just joined the team. It’s not for lack of enthusiasm; more than once he was looking for a carry against the Roosters that wasn’t his, and just seemed desperate to get involved. He will likely get his share of work to do on ball carries, and I’m hopeful that his enthusiasm to get involved can translate to metres. However, this isn’t his weakness right now. He looks at sea defensively, rushing out of the line, and more than once creating holes behind him that were subsequently filled by James Tedesco. His defensive stylings may be more suited to an edge role, but that’s not what Canberra needs right now. They need production from him, and safe-as-houses defence.

And this is where we turn to offer a word of caution to the desire to bring either Sia Soliola or Emre Guler back into the side on big minutes. It seems like Soliola is being held back for his own good, and Guler is not far away. While bringing them back into the 17 is critical, if for nothing else but to build up match fitness before the finals, there needs to be a stepped-out approach to their minute load. There’s no point them getting hurt trying to extend themselves too quickly in Papa’s absence. However should Papalii be sidelined for a long time, they become increasingly important.

So the potential loss of Papalii isn’t an end for the Raiders. Just like so many of their obstacles in 2020, it simply provides more opportunities for the roster as constructed to take a step up and take the opportunities that have been presented. There’s little time to waste.

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