Jack Wighton is improving so fast you don’t even notice. From “should he play five-eighth” to State of Origin, to Clive Churchill and Dally M Player of the Year. It’s been quite a trajectory.
I’m not really interested in arguing whether Wighton is the ‘best’ player in the game. The Dally-M has never really been about that. It’s about being a standout player on your team. The real achievement here is that he stood out on a team full of high performers. No doubt this is partly because he’s the biggest name in a club that most Dally-M voters barely watch, giving him the advantage of name and face recognition when it comes time to enter votes. It’s the first time Sydney rugby league commentators not having a clue who Canberra are has actually worked out for the Milk.
There will be two parts to the debate over the next few days. First we’ll learn the Dally-M’s are flawed, which I guess is true, but you should really call your shot while it’s in the air. Jack winning doesn’t make it flawed; letting Sydney rugby league personalities anywhere near the voting does.
The second part of this debate will be a painful and wholly subjective discussion of whether Wighton is the “best” player in the league, whatever that means. Wighton may not be the best player in the league, but that doesn’t mean Cleary is. Cleary is a fine player, but he was “the chosen one” because the Panthers were good more than because he was. The only difference between him and Jack winning was that the uncritical group think of the Sydney media decided on it months ago. I guess they forgot they voted on it too.
The debate over whether Jack is the best player in the game that will ensue over the next few days implicitly acknowledges that Jack isn’t perfect. I doubt he’ll ever be the Platonic ideal of a rugby league player. He’s only been playing in the front-line for the last two seasons. He’s not the fulcrum in the Raiders attack. He doesn’t touch the ball as much as Cleary, or Cam Smith. He’s not the front-line kicker (though he had 400 kick metres more than the next five-eighth per Matt from the Greenhouse and Green Machine Podcast) or the even the front-line creator when Josh Hodgson is fit. People will say he has an error in him, a criticism of Jack as a fullback before he drastically reduced his error rate in the second half of 2018. It was true of Jack as a five-eighth, until he similarly reduced his error rate in the second half of 2020 (he had 20 errors in the first 11 games of the season, 9 over his last 11).
They’ll ignore that he’s a brilliant ball runner, a better playmaker and kicker than people realise. He’s the best defensive back in the competition, single-handedly capable of taking down a rhino or a cheetah. Whatever the opposition sends his way, he’ll hurt them just the same. Over the last two years he’s turned the left side of the Raiders’ attack into a well-oiled machine. His ability to drive through an opposition like a tap-dancing thoroughbred is the secret sauce of the Canberra attack – the premise on which everything else is built. Without the terror that oppositions feel every time he touches the ball, nothing else is possible.
It’s true, Jack is still improving, and that should terrify everyone, rather than anger them. Other players improve in fits and starts, Wighton’s game develops in leaps and bounds. His development over 2019 and 2020 at the position has been so rapid that step-change development instead feels incremental. It’s probably a weird thing to say that the newly crowned Dally-M player of the year is still building his skills at the position but it’s true. Each week Jack is getting better, and he’s already one of the best players in the competition. Now when the Raiders need points all you think is “if they can get Jack a bit of space he can do it himself.” That’s the measure of greatness. When the game is on the line do I want him to get the ball? Do I think he can make something happen? I do, and he does.
So congratulations Jack Wighton, the first Canberra Raider to win the Dally M since Laurie Daley in 1995. You deserved it.
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