We are well into the free agency period of rugby league’s offseason and a major matter still remains outstanding for the Canberra Raiders: the whereabouts of Jordan Rapana’s signature.
Whether Rapana would stick around has been much discussed he returned from Japan in the Covid break. The Raiders almost immediately identified him as a top priority in recruitment, alongside Sia Soliola, for the 2021 season. For his part Rapana has reiterated on multiple occasions that the is keen to stay in Canberra. He did so in August, telling a media scrum he was keen to stay in Canberra, saying:
Obviously I love it here in Canberra. This is where I want to be. [I] probably don’t have too much longer in my career so to finish up here would be ideal
Then, as reported by the The Canberra Times, Rapana said about his negotiations to stay in Canberra in September:
I want to stay here, I love it here. My wife’s from here. She’s ready to pop and I definitely believe I’ll finish up here. I’ve got unfinished business here as well in terms of winning a comp here. The boys that I’ve played here with I’ve played with for almost six or seven years.Reported in the Canberra Times 10 September
Both times it was clear that money wasn’t the biggest issue. Rather he was settled in Canberra, and perhaps in a world growing more uncertain by the moment, the allure of new challenges was less intriguing. There was a brief moment Rapana was shopped by his manager to other clubs, but both Jordan and the club made clear they weren’t keen to pursue pathways at either the Storm or the Tigers.
So what’s the delay?
I assume some would point to Rapana’s perceived lack of performance in the second half of the season and suggest maybe his best years are behind him, quelling the interest of the Raiders, but I think that’s a misguided view.
Much of this was borne from the fact that Rapana was playing out of position for much of the season. He was an adequate fill-in at centre, but no-one will ever pretend it was his preferred position. Defensively he was band-aid, and that right edge never felt as robust as it had in 2019. It ended up being the most porous side of the Canberra defence, and was found out in the preliminary final against the Storm. Centre also meant Rapana was taken out of his element in attack, a lighting strike forced into a square hole.
It’s a shame because the narrower game that came from Covid required some of his best skills. The nature of the ruck changed, with markers more often strewn than in position. It meant that directness was valued and players that could take a carry from dummy half and go could thrive. Rapana has one of the best yardage carries from a winger in the game, and spending more time at wing would have given him more opportunities to utilise it.
Indeed when he did play wing he largely looked much happier. In the 8 games he started at wing he averaged 153 metres and nearly 3 tackle breaks a game, compared to 117 and 2 across the season (Cotric averaged 111 for reference). 3 of his 6 line breaks came at wing, and he always felt more comfortable in defence there (or should I say, I was always more comfortable with his defence there).
With Nic Cotric walking out the door, Michael Oldfield leaving for Parramatta and Jarrod Croker injured, the Raiders currently have nothing but possibilities across the centre-three-quarters. There’s an acre of talent in the path behind him, but none of it is assured. Rapana at wing gives the Green Machine the opportunity to buy a little certainty.
So performance isn’t an issue. Nor is space in the roster. The announced preliminary roster for 2021 only has 28 players, with Rapana (and Kai O’Donnell) the noticeable absences. Interest from other clubs seems to have been insufficient to tempt Rapana away from Canberra. It seems likely that 30 players will be the agreed squad size, and the Raiders will need at least another player per NRL rules by the time the season roles around.
The only other explanation is meeting of money. This is likely complicated by the ongoing negotiations around the 2021 salary cap. When we last saw news of it, this was still a matter for negotiation. There have been no announcements from either the NRL or the Players Association to clarify the salary cap for 2021 (and the roster size is part of this discussion too). Teams only named two development players in their recent squad announcements, down from six in 2020, as this matter is also still up for negotiation. It’s possible the Raiders are nearing the brink of what they think the likely cap will be for 2021, and don’t want to press the button on a new deal for Rapana until they know they can afford it. Similarly, Rapana’s agent may be waiting until that number is clearer if he thinks it will mean more money for his client.
This is all speculation of course. We’re just reading tea leaves here. But at the moment the goodwill between club and champion remains, at least publicly. Let’s hope the obstacles are removed and Rapana is a Raiders in 2021.
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