Depth and Hard Choices

BY DAN

Today it was announced that Caleb Aekins would be joining the Milk for the 2021 season. It’s a signing that seems to be made to build depth in the backline, but it augurs harder choices to come.

Aekins comes with some pedigree. He’s battled Dylan Edwards for the fullback position at the Panthers. He was preferred there the last time they beat the Raiders in round 13. He averages 148 metres a game, but much of that comes from kick returns and he isn’t heavily involved in the yardage game like Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. Over his 8 games in 2020 he has a total of 44 hit up metres, and 10 tackle breaks. In his brief forays into first grade he hasn’t struck me as a strong ball-player, and this is supported by the fact he only has 1 try assists over his 12 games.

It’s a interesting signing for the Milk. At 22 Aekins should be considered identified talent rather than a finished product, so giving him an opportunity to back-up Nicoll-Klokstad and provide depth across the back five (presumably) over a year should give the Green Machine plenty of chances to see what his future might look like. He may be competing with Adam Cook for playing time. Cook recently signed a two-year extension and while he played fullback in his first grade debut, word is much of his previous footy has been as a half. Simonsson, Smith-Shields and Rapana can all play at the back also, though are likely preferred at other positions.

His signature suggests more decisions are to come. It’s hard to know the make-up of the Raiders squad next year because the 30-man 6 development player structure is still being finalised, although I note that other clubs that have named their development players for 2021 have only named four players.. With pressure from the NRL for clubs to reduce their number of developmental players this decision may well come at the expense of existing squad members. While Bateman and Cotric (and potentially Sam Williams) are leaving the club, a reduction in the number of developmental means that more players that may otherwise sit in those spots will have to come into the top 30. Aekins will take a top 30 spot, so it’ll be interesting to see which players stay on development deals, and which move into the top 30, and potentially those that move on.

The tight salary budget for 2021, also still yet to be finalised, may increase the incentive to keep young players and mean more established players may not be retained. Primarily at risk here is off-contract Michael Oldfield. He has been a stalwart for the club for a few years now and has provided certainty of outcome at each position across the centres/wings rather than the hope of youth. But he’s likely more expensive than either the Baby Raiders, or Aekins. This ultimately may be driving the decision to bring Aekins on board. I would be sad if Oldfield is not retained.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, how Aekins fits into the squad in 2020, and how much emphasis is put on developing him. It’s only a one-year deal, so there’s little risk to the Raiders if it goes wrong. They’ve done it before with Nicoll-Klokstad, Simonsson and even Rapana. Here’s hoping Aekins is just the latest.

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