It’s rare that you get to watch a player develop so brazenly before your eyes.
The 2020 season was a story of obstacles. Pandemics, bus rides, rule changes, bush fires, me eating too much, bubbles, Peter V’Landys chewing administrative structures of the game to bits while the media polity applauded. It wasn’t an easy year to football, and that doesn’t even mention the outside world.
Semi Valemei made his first grade debut in round 10 against the Roosters, thrust on at half time as a replacement for an injured Michael Oldfield. It may have not been chaos, but it was certainly the continuation of a year that made life freaking difficult. It was an almost cruel introduction to the highest level for the young Fijian. Forget the path that had brought him to Canberra in the first place, here he was, at the highest level, facing down the vaunted left-side attack of the two-time premiership winning team. To his left was Jordan Rapana, who hadn’t played centre in a very long time. None of this was ideal. There was nowhere to hide, and here he was like a new foal, all legs and trepidation. He and his partner-in-crime (for that evening) managed to hold on, but as we noted in our game review, it wasn’t entirely convincing.
Up to that point it was hard to know what to think about the naming of Valemei in the squad. Unless you were a keen observer of the 20s competition, you hadn’t seen him play. Sure there were highlights packages (there always are), but they never really give you much of an insight for wingers other than that they often score tries. Even those who would find every opportunity to watch Mounties had been stripped of seeing the boys play by the pandemic, alongside Valemei’s ability to develop in the second-tier competition like any other young player. There would be no quiet development beyond the spotlight of the NRL. All warts would be seen.
Valemei dropped a hit up early, as if to remind the world that this was his first crack. But it was his only error for the rest of the game, as he and Rapana managed to hold fast as the Raiders stole a famous victory. Valemei was mostly seen but not heard in that outing, but it was enough to earn himself a regular starting role of the rest of the season. He swung around to the left wing, situated as the power outside the grace of Jarrod Croker and grift of Smelly Whitehead.
A week later he scored his first try, a moment as unlikely as his unique rise to prominence. It remained a bumpy ride. He had plenty of ‘development opportunities, and we got to see him solving these problems week to week. At first he struggled under the high ball, and within weeks he had a solution. His defensive positioning was found out on occasion, but over time he became as reliable as any on the backline to make a hit. Of course this wasn’t perfectly linear. Progress under the high ball evaporated in the preliminary final under the towering pressure of Melbourne’s stars. His defensive positioning improved every week until it disapeared against the Dragons, before he made several critical reads against the Warriors (and one stunning pick-up-and-go to turn the game in the Raiders favour) and beyond.
This was a part of development. It’s not linear. Lessons are learned and re-learned. Solutions that work for most teams suddenly become tested against the elite teams of the competition. When Valemei struggled defensively in the preliminary final against the Storm, part of the reason the skills he’d developed hadn’t had the repetitions required against a test like this. He failed, like the rest of the Raiders did on that frustrating ambush in October.
In the meantime though he displayed some of the skills that made his countrymen Noa Nadruku a hit at the Raiders. Plenty of pace, but more importantly a surprising amount of power. He seem to share Jack Wighton’s titanium bones. In that Warriors win he showed his ability to outpace the line, as well as the power he possessed to smash through it. He was handy in yardage, averaging a smidge under 100 metres a game, utilising legs that powered through defenders like sledgehammers.
Recognition of this success was demonstrated when he was announced as the Milk’s rookie of the year and in the Fijian train on squad. It’s been such a whirlwind ride for the young man as he’s gone from anonymous to NRL regular.
Along the way we’ve got to watch that progress in a way that we haven’t before, and unlikely will again. There was simply no other option for him but to continue to develop in front of our eyes. Curiously this led some to write off Semi, not recognising that what he achieved in 2020 was as unusual as it was prodigious. His errors, which would have happened behind relatively closed doors, have instead been stark; his attempts to remedy them obvious. So used are we to more “finished” products that we’ve ignored his rapid progress and unique achievements.
The future is bright if not clear for Valemei. He’s in hot competition for a starting spot with more experienced campaigners like Jordan Rapana and mercurial talents like Bailey Simonsson and Harley Smith-Shields. Compounding this is the fact that if the Raiders don’t find an adequate solution to their lack of access to the New South Wales Cup, this phenomenon of young players having to learning and improve with eager eyes watching will continue.
Valemei will be used to it. He’s been developing in plain sight all along.