The Canberra Raiders continued a flurry of activity on the personnel front with the confirmation from the people’s hero Nick Campton and also David Riccio at The Daily Telegraph that Tom Starling would be extending his stay in Canberra for a further two years. Update: This has now been confirmed by the club.
This is an impressive ‘get’ for the Raiders. Starling has emerged as a starting-quality dummy-half in 2020, displaying an impressive set of skills as a ruck manager. He’s given effective service, adding width and quick off-the-ground passing to ensure the middle keeps moving, and can change points of attack easily. Starling has also proven a more effective defender than his size belies, and while he remains every prop’s favourite target (Paul Vaughan ran incessantly at him early on Saturday), he’s shown that he can do enough to make sure it doesn’t hurt the Green Machine.
Starling is still developing creatively around the ruck. He doesn’t have all the tricks of the trade yet, and while he can smell a hole to run through, he’s yet to develop the game to put other people through a gap (as evidenced by his two try-assists for the season). As a young player it’s understandable that he defers to the more experienced members of the Milk’s spine, but a few times recently he’s let the ball head wide when more work needed to be done around the ruck. These are all characteristics of a developing player, and at 22 there’s plenty of time to perfect his art. He’s acknowledged how important working with captain Josh Hodgson has been to his development this season, and two more years under his tutelage will no doubt see him thrive.
Starling also provides excellent insurance for the currently injured Hodgson. The Englishmen is in his 30s now, and coming off his second ACL injury. There’s no guarantee he’ll return in 2021 at full speed (although, when he returned from a similar injury in 2018 he hit the ground running). If Hodgson doesn’t recover before the season, or never finds his previous best, Starling is waiting in the wings.
He is also a potential compliment to Hodgson. He is a quicker and more willing runner than Josh, and there’s no doubt he would thrive as a ‘change-of-pace’ hooker, coming on to tear up tired forwards late in the half or game. Hodgson is also entering the back-end of his prime, so reducing his minutes through the regular season can be seen as a smart strategy to elongate his career.
There’s no doubt this signing is a massive victory for the Raiders. Starling is a first grade quality rake in a competition that is light-on at such a critical position. Any club would want him, especially as a backup, which makes the ability of the Green Machine to hold him, ostensibly as a backup, even more impressive. Two years was a step up on the rumoured initial offer from Canberra of a single year, and probably reflects the Milk needing to up their offer to keep Tom in Canberra. This length still retains the flexibility the club needs to ensure there’s a pathway for identified youth talent, while ensuring they keep Starling in the family.
The only potential loser in this deal is Siliva Havili. He’s now likely pushed down to 3rd string at dummy-half, and behind a wealth of returning talent as a middle forward (not to mention the additions of Ryan James and Corey Harawira-Naera). In identifying the club’s priorities for retention in 2021, his name has yet to come up. His utility ability, and the aforementioned uncertainty around Hodgson’s health, lead me to hope the club can retain him, but we’ll have to wait and see.
It’s another piece of the puzzle of Raiders recruitment. It’s been a busy few weeks, and with Sia Soliola likely being finalised soon, and Jordan Rapana on record as wanting to stay in Canberra, the Milk have put a good mix of youth and experience into their roster. It means they’re capable of being highly competitive now, while ensuring they’re building for tomorrow too. Starling has a foot in both of those camps, potentially being the hooker of the future while also ensuring Canberra is the real deal now.
It’s a rare gift in a (previously and potentially future) backup player. The Raiders have been shrewd to keep him.