As the annual jumble of players has settled like a boggle game, the eyes of the rugby league world have started to think about the ramifications. For most, including the good people at Fox Sports, this has been a focus on what potential lineups will look like.
You don’t need actually need to know what a projected line up looks like; not now at least. There’s so much time and space between now and round one that it makes these mapping exercises more about projecting the hopes and dreams of the possibilities of 2021 than about anything concrete. They’re not based on trial performance. They’re not even based on the ‘training the house down’ pre-season stories.
What they are useful for is highlighting emerging issues.
When you play this game with the Canberra Raiders one thing that becomes very clear is that the good guys have a freaking bevy of good forwards. Think about it like this. It is extremely conceivable that the Green Machine team for round one will not feature new recruit Ryan James, emerging English prop Ryan Sutton, or Tongan international utlity Siliva Havili. Moreso, in order to fit four forwards onto the bench, Tom Starling has been left off Fox League’s version, so it’s conceivable another forward could miss out if the Raiders choose to carry a back-up hooker on the bench.
It’s a strong position to be in, but one that highlights a problem for the Raiders that is yet to resolve. What will the players that miss out do?
In recent years players that hadn’t made the first grade cut would spend their time up the highway playing for Mounties in the New South Wales cup. However, as if 2020 didn’t throw up enough obstacles, this relationship was severed as Mounties decided to go all Nic Cotric on Canberra and shack up with the Canterbury Bulldogs.
So far it’s unclear how the Raiders plan to respond. There was a hope they might establish their own side in the NSW cup, was that proved a (probably too expensive) pipe dream. Establishing old links to the Souths Logan Magpies won’t happen (they’re now a Broncos feeder team) and finding another team in Queensland feels optimistic.
Update: Shane in the comments points out that Souths’ relationship with the Broncos has ended, but that it’s linking up with the Titans
Even if the historical opposition from the NSW Rugby League dissipates, cost and the potential for border closures in our Covid normal world make it less desirable than it once was. One would think there would plenty of local opposition to the Canberra establishing a feeder relationship there too, not in the least in the form of potential expansion sides trying to protect their future.
The Raiders initial response was to say they would utilise the Canberra Cup, something that immediately felt inadequate. That’s a substantial step down in quality that would be a wholly insufficient place for internationals, origin players, or Ryan James (who is neither, but is of that quality) to whittle away their time trying to break back into first grade. If they were all put in one team this super squad would tear through the substandard competition. If they played against each other it would be a better solution. Still, it hardly feels like anything but stick-tape masquerading as a band-aid
Sidebar: Other, smarter people have been talking about this. The Green Machine Podcast have been discussing this since the announcement. NRL Boom Rookies talked about in a recent podcast. Fifth n Last also have talked about it intermittently through the 2020 season. Check them all out for more nuanced takes.
So what remains? The best short-term solution is to build a temporary relationship with a range of teams in the NSW cup. There may not be the time and space (or money) to create a one-to-one relationship, but I’m sure there are teams that would love to borrow a rampaging middle forward desperate to prove their ready to play first grade, not to mention the speed and talent that will be waiting in the wings. The fact that the Raiders will still be involved in NSW cup junior competitions is a good sign.
But it seems a lot of this will be about the Raiders financial position in 2021. The cost of sending players to NSW can’t be cheap, let alone to multiple teams. It’ll take a lot more than the Milk jerseys selling like hot-cakes (weird saying hey….has anyone been to a pancake parlour lately?) to fund that after the financial hit they (and all rugby league teams) took in 2020. Canberra Cup is obviously a much cheaper option.
My hope is Canberra finds the money, and the relationships, to keep it’s bench warm in the NSW Cup. Anything less risks creating a massive gap between those regularly playing top line and those slugging away at Seiffart Oval.
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