The Daily Telegraph revealed this weekend that Jarrod Croker recently had surgery on a borked shoulder (technical term) after suffering a ruptured rotator cuff and torn labrum early in the preliminary final. It will keep him out of the early rounds of next year. There plenty of talent to fill his spot, but that’s not the whole story.
That Croker played through such pain is admirable. I’ve never suffered a rotator cuff injury but from all reports they hurt like hell. It would also provide an explanation for less-than-stellar effort to bring down Sulasi Vunivalu mid way through the first half.
Missing the early part of next season highlights a big question for the Raiders. They have plenty of talent in the backline, but little certainty. All positions in the back five outside Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s position up the back are conceivably up for grabs
There’s no shortage of talent to fill them, which Coach Stuart acknoweleges:
No doubt someone of Jarrod’s experience and presence in the group will be missing, but an opportunity is there for the likes of Curtis Scott, Bailey Simonsson, Harley Smith-Shields and Matty Timoko.”Sticky to the Daily Telegraph
Each of these choices has merit. Matt Timoko and Harley Smith-Shields are oozing talent. Timoko is the kind of hard running battering ram out wide that Raiders often missed in 2020 after the departure of BJ Leilua. Smith-Shields runs like Nic Cotric, with slightly less developed shoulders. My impression of him wasn’t so much that he was fast, but rather than he ran at impossible angles. His agility in the line could break lines and new pathways for the Milk. Curtis Scott with a clear mind, a full heart and a uneventual pre-season could be ready to unleash the frustration of 2020 on the world. This doesn’t even account for how the side fits Jordan Rapana and Bailey Simonsson into the line up.
While they provide talent they very much do not provide certainty. There is no sure thing here, and with the departure of Nic Cotric, there’s little that can be done to build on combinations already established in 2020. It’s not a good thing – Gainline Analytics had spent a lot of time researching and reporting on the importance of cohesion borne from continuity in their work, and without Cotric, Bateman and now Croker, the Raiders will be forced to enter 2021 with new connections, and relatively inexperienced players in the hardest positions to defend.
There’s also not a like for like replacement for Croker’s role on the left. We’ve nattered on ad nauseum about this in recent times, but the cohesion and connections Croker has built as part of the Whitehead and Wighton left edge attack cannot be overstated. This was the only place the Raiders could run set plays of any complexity. It took advantage of Croker and Whitehead’s unique skills – Whitehead’s ability to read the play like a halfback, and Croker’s passing skills, and built a set of attacking movements over a long period of two seasons (if not longer). They were some of Canberra’s best attack when they couldn’t use the array of options they had in the middle third of the park.
For more detail read this.
Importantly, Wighton trusted Croker. He often would send a pass in Croker’s (or Smelly’s) direction, happy in the knowledge that if an opportunity he identified didn’t eventuate, Croker would be able to handle it appropriately.
Defensively a similar story is told. Croker’s defence is sometimes criticised, but the left edge was miles ahead of its counterpart on the right in 2020. Players that played right centre had 19 try causes in 2020. Croker had 10. No doubt plenty of that comes from being situated outside Wighton and Whitehead, two of the better defenders in the side. But as much comes from the connection between those three.
Whoever fills this roll simply won’t have the cohesion with Wighton and Whitehead that Croker enjoyed. They won’t have Croker’s passing skills, and they won’t have the time to build the trust with Wighton early in next season. It’s a challenge for whoever fills the spot.
But the longest journeys start with a single step. It’s a rare opportunity for Canberra to get ready for a post-Croker future. The road to return for Croker is long and arduous. As NRL Physio pointed out on twitter, the nature of the injury means there’s no certainty to the return time frame. This means the Raiders need to look beyond a makeshift solution (such as Rapana at centre) to something more permanent. Whoever they think is the long-term solution after Croker should be the person they choose. Building connections takes time, and you may as well start now.
At the start of next season Curtis Scott will likely fill the right centre position, alongside Jordan Rapana (who, with George Williams at least got plenty of warning to work on his goal kicking). Valemei or Simonsson will start at left wing. So choose between Smith-Shields or Timoko. I couldn’t argue against either, regardless of their various histories playing on the left (Smith-Shields) or the right (Timoko). But whoever it is should be chosen with a view to the future.
Whoever Sticky chooses will have talent. That much is clear. But the challenge isn’t about finding talent. It’s about finding a fit, and some consistency, coherence and certainty. That’s a much tougher proposition.
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