Amidst the euphoria of the Baby Raiders victory on Saturday, there was one piece of truly heinous news. Ryan Sutton had likely suffered a substantial tear to his medial collateral ligmament. This was confirmed today by the club, and it means that Sutton would miss the finals series.
It would take someone as tough as Sutton to not feel awful for the Englishman. He notably played no role in Canberra’s 2019 finals run, after a late season calf injury, and Sticky’s preference of Emre Guler kept him out of the 17.
This season he’d done everything to win that spot back. He’s been one of the Raiders best forwards, outside of Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine). He upped his output from 91 metres a game to 111 metres a game, on the back of a substantially higher post-contact metre output. In four less games this season he eclipsed his total post-contact metres for last season (690m to 619m). He was trusted with bigger minutes, free to be the ‘volume’ forward he is: able to play 55 minutes without a rest, with his first carry and his last carry harbouring the same power. The League Eye Test consistently had him in the upper echelons of the competition in ‘involvement rate’ (a ratio of tackles and runs to minutes played).
This was only more impressive because his level of involvement remained consistent even as his minutes increased.
Sidebar: The League Eye Test does tremendous work. Please visit their website. This is an official Sportress endorsement.
Sutton was a crucial part of Coach Stuart’s forward rotation. As forwards fell like flies, his ability to play big minutes meant he could be extended to cover the gap between the big minutes players like Horsburgh, Guler and Soliola, and the players that replaced them like Kai O’Donnell, Corey Harawira-Naera, and Siliva Havili (bench forward edition). Alongside the addition of Tom Starling as a big minute player, and Dunamis Lui’s improvement over 2020, it was probably the most substantial addition in terms of minutes to Canberra’s forward rotation as the season wore on.
Sutton also established himself as a first choice forward. Able to be used either as the long bridge between through the middle of the game, or from the get go, he played an array of roles for the side. However, when push came to shove and the Raiders needed their best 13 on the field he was invariably there. He started against the Roosters, and played the biggest minutes of any non-Papalii/Tapine middle forward against the Panthers.
In the lead up to the game against the Sharks it became clear he was not looking to take the foot off the accelerator. He told the Canberra Times how desperate he was to play finals footy, and how keen he was to stay involved, lest he bequeath his spot to returning cavalry. He even showed the first shoots of potential pack leadership going forward, making a point that he wanted to help the young kids coming through. It makes the injury so saddening.
For Sutton it a terrible personal setback, the only silver lining of which is that it’s not more serious. In all likelihood he’ll be ready to roll for the start of the 2021 season, just as raring to go as he was before this season. But the disappointment to miss the finals he must feel must be massive. Coach Stuart gave us some hint with his press-conference condolences, in which he expressed how grateful he was for Sutton’s performance in 2020, and how sorrowful he was that he would miss the finals.
For the Raiders the impact of his loss will be substantial. While Soliola’s return provides some comfort, the Raiders depth at middle forward remains precarious heading into the finals. They have a full complement at the moment, but if there’s further injury, the Baby Raiders may need to be called on (or potentially bring Michael Oldfield onto the bench as a utility). Either way, there’s precariousness that the Canberra didn’t need right now.
Further, instead of having a discussion about which two of Soliola, Harawira-Naera and Havili would play in week one of the finals, Canberra will need them all, and given Harawira-Naera’s ongoing, and possibly match-fitness influenced, defensive issues, it’s not ideal. Instead of wondering how many minutes to split between them, Canberra may well be asking how many more they can manage. For Soiliola and Harawira-Naera it’s not ideal to ask them to push their fitness; for Havili it limits his ability to fill-in at hooker if Starling needs a break due to the heightened pace of finals footy.
The Raiders have built a resilience over 2020 that has been impressive, and this will unlikely break them. But it’s another obstacle to overcome when they desperately needed a break, and single goddamn break, to go there way. Instead, they’re another battle to find, another wound to band-aid over, and another person being asked to take on more minutes and more responsibility. I hope whoever is asked, can do it with the same success that Ryan did.
Otherwise it will be big cost, for both Ryan, and the Raiders.