A few years ago when the clouds lay across Bruce Stadium enveloping all that was good in the world, we sat down and worked out the road less travelled. Specifically, we looked at all the talent, all the possibility and opportunity that had walked out the door from the start of the Stuart era, and wondered what could have been.
This list of departures was long so we took stock and put together a team. The Tevita Pangai All-Stars. We named it after TPJ because at the time he was tearing the league a new *ahem* (it was late 2018. Trust me it happened). The team itself probably wasn’t very talented (you can see it here) but it was enough that it was upsetting to look at. We revisited it again last year, and are back again to look at just what we’re all missing out on.
When you see the players below you’ll notice it’s a quality team – one that could push for a finals position quite comfortably. It’s so good that we had to push a bunch of players out the door – what can we say, after two years of success, it’s the fish that Stuart rejects that make Stuart the best (shout out to anyone old enough to get that reference). It makes sense when you think about it. Being successful means you sometimes have to let good players go.
So without further adieu here are the boys in all their glory. The Tevita Pangai All-Stars. Part III.
Fullback: Anthony Milford
When he left it was like being jilted at the alter. This was our future walking out the door. We’d identified him. We’d developed him. He was going to bring back the good days, the literal little guy would lead the metaphorical little guy back to greener pastures.
And then he didn’t.
Since he left it’s hurt less every year. When he scored one of the genuinely great tries early in 2020 I was worried he was going to finally fulfil his potential, and maybe he still will. But for now, as crazy as it would seem to tell five-years-ago-me, it worked out for Canberra.
Wings: Nic Cotric and Edrick Lee
Edrick was pushed out the door because the Raiders knew that Nic Cotric was a rolled-gold certainty. It saddened me, because Edrick never got to earn his redemption for the 2016 preliminary final, and never got to fulfil his potential playing alongside his equally tantalising but frustrating cousin BRENKO.
That Nic Cotric is no longer at Canberra makes the whole exchange even more saddening (and watch out, a similar trade happens a bit further down the list). Nic was asking a lot of money (somewhere around 600k a year), and sometimes you have to draw hard lines in the sand. I get that at an intellectual level. It was probably the best thing to do, especially given the talent in the pipeline. But when he’s a local hero, the departure is all the more despairing.
Centres: BJ Leilua and Brenko Lee
BJ and BRENKO are kindred spirits in my heart. They both tried and succeeded doing what others often were unwilling to try or unable to do. BJ’s brilliance brought so many smiles and tries to us, but it wore Sticky’s patience thin. BRENKO had his moments, but he was like a glorious bird that never learned to fly in Canberra. It’s only been since Craig Bellamy took him under his tutelage that he’s found a permanent place in a first grade line up, not to mention a goddamn premiership.
Five-Eighth: Blake Austin
It says a lot about the Raiders inability to find decent halves, as well as the remarkable impact Austin had in his flawed time in Canberra, that there aren’t many other options here. You really worried about Lachlan Lewis? Milford has switched in and out of 6 in Brisbane, and it’s never been a big deal either way (he’ll be better next to Tommy Dearden though, that kid is legit). The search for a replacement for Lozza and Campo eventually landed on Jack Wighton, and that’s where it’ll stay.
Halfback: Aidan Sezer
I still love Aidan Sezer. The love affair begun before he even started playing for the Raiders. When he confirmed he was coming to Canberra even after Daly Cherry-Evans backflipped on Gold Coast, I knew he wanted to be here, to play with us, and Sticky, and fill the other role we’d never happily settled on since back in the day. When he won his first game with a broken face I was smitten.
As we wrote here, sometimes love just isn’t enough. I’m glad he’s going well in the Super League, and I hope he gets a shot back in the NRL soon. He’s good enough.
Lock: Mitch Barnett
The thing about Mitch Barnett is that Sticky essentially chose Joe Tapine over him, and it turned out to be a win win for both sides. Barnett has been going great guns for Newcastle, particularly when they let him play in the middle and not try to defend laterally quicker players on an edge.
Tapine of course spent the back half of 2020 tearing apart teams and turning renowned defenders into drunken tap dancers.
Second row: John Bateman and TPJ
Eesssh. This one is going to hurt guys. Bateman was a big part of transforming the Raiders defence from trash to terrific. I think Hudson Young is a good replacement, but it’s a tall order to ask him to replace what Batty gave to the good guys (not to mention to fact that he seemed to put the starch in the spirit of the Milk). We did fine without him for parts of 2020, so maybe he was just an angel that passed through our lives for too-short-a-time only to convince us that ‘we’ had ‘it’ in us all along. Let’s hope.
The TPJ story has gone so far south since we announced the All-Stars that we’ve begun to wonder if we’ve cursed him through this gimmick. In 2020 he barely played a game, wasn’t good when he did, broke Covid protocols and couldn’t promise he wouldn’t again, and undermined his coach. It’s hard to think how he could be worse in 2021.
Props: Paul Vaughan and Junior Paulo
Paul Vaughan was another local boy made good, who walked out the door when he probably shouldn’t have. It was never made clear why the Raiders soured on him, but it wasn’t his performance on the field. He was a stalwart, a future star, who suddenly fell behind Luke Bateman and Clay Priest in the pecking order. He went to the Dragons and became an Origin star.
Junior Paulo came from Parramatta and ostensibly was chosen over Vaughan. Only he turned around and went back to Parramatta soon after. The silver linings to that change was that it, along with Shannon Boyd’s departure, made the Raiders rethink their approach to middles, making them smaller and more mobile, and bringing Big Papa to his rightful home in the front row.
Hooker: Kurt Baptiste
Bappers was hard-working but he was never the solution. And we essentially chose Josh Hodgson’s ability to play 80 minutes over him. And really, when you think about it, Bappers is never that far away (as was displayed in his spending the second half of 2020 as hooker depth with the Green Machine).
Bench: Liam Knight, Mark Nicholls, Lachlan Lewis, Michael Oldfield
Liam Knight and Mark Nicholls are the exact kind of budget forwards that Wayne Bennett specialises in turning into functional players. Knight in particular has been a critical part of the Bunnies pack over the last few years, and will continue to be so even with the uptick in talent coming to Redfern next year. Nicholls might not be so lucky.
Everyone in Canberra is going to miss Michael Oldfield. He just needed a proper crack at the top grade, and I hope he gets that at Parramatta (though I hope it goes well for him, but not them, if that makes sense).
Lachlan Lewis got the nod over Luke Bateman only because he’s still plying his trade in the top grade. Luke Bateman is a dude.