Among the interesting tid-bits from his interview with David Riccio from the Daily Telegraph over the weekend was his emphasis on the necessity of competition. In this interview, Sticky makes it clear that he considers the performances of the back five in 2020 as substandard (his exact word was ‘disappointed’) and that he sees the way he’ll get the best of out of his talented backline is through ongoing competition for playing time. This is not new – as we wrote here, Sticky has made this point to the press consistently. It’s even flowed down to his assistants, such as when Brett White told The Green Machine Podcast that a similar strategy was at play with the forwards.
It’s a understandable approach. Philosophers from the Aristotlian-inspired mutualist school, to Adam Smith’s classic economic liberalism, to Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest have promoted competition as a critical part of the pursuit of collective excellence, both within sport and as humans. You can see how it makes sense – anyone who has pushed a little bit harder to chase someone else down (both literally and metaphorically) can attest to its effects. Ask Tesla and Edison. Ask Lincoln’s team of rivals. Ask Roger Dorn and Ricky Vaughn. We push each other. We improve. We can do amazing things with a bit of collective impetus.
Stuart has held this as a view for some time, but only now is there the consistent talent across the roster to match his ambition. Before it was conversations about needing more quality players to push other quality players. Now the consensus is that the Raiders have unending pools of talent. Even Sia Soliola is impressed:
This is a squad where when you look at the roster and our forwards, I’ve never been in a club with that much experience, never to this degreeSia Soliola to Dan Walsh of NRL.com
This isn’t an issue identified isolated to the forwards. In his interview with Riccio, Stuart doubled down on his claim that he might shift Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to the centres. As I’ve said here, I consider this more a threat than a plan. And while I’ve thought it was directed at Charnze, it’s worth considering that it might be aimed instead at those fighting for a position in the centres. As I’ve said before, Nicoll-Klokstad is the only player guaranteed a spot in the back five, so this threat means as much to the incumbents at centre as it does to him.
Regardless, it was interesting to see Sticky firstly identify that he had a problem with the performance of the back five in 2020, as well as his proposed solution as simply taking what he already had an adding more competition. There’s a lot going on there. Jarrod Croker is the captain, Jordan Rapana an established first grader, and they’ll be fighting alongside an array of rookies and up-and-comers. Given the fight it took to just get to the end of 2020 healthy, it’s a substantial demand to turn around at the people that dragged their damaged bodies through the season and ask for more.
It’s a tougher battle for the backline than the forward line. There’s less proven performers, and much more uncertainty. As Sticky himself noted the backline’s performance in 2020 was subpar for a team serious about winning the whole goddman thing. Inconsistent yardage work (outside Charnze), too many errors (both in defusing kicks, and in in-the-line defensive decisions), and a complete lack of the ‘punch’ that departed with BJ Leilua, are all areas for improvement.
So competition is a way forward. And it’s an important and useful pathway. But it’s not flawless or without risk. Gain Line Analytics has become a profitable business preaching (and presenting evidence) in support of cohesion built through time spent on the field together (we’ve written about it here too). Essentially they have evidence that shows that to build the relationships and connections to be successful you need to play together. Competition is fine, but it can create a scenario where players are moved in and out of lineups, and never get a chance to build this unity in practice.
This also doesn’t account for the benefit that young players get from clear roles and playing time. I don’t doubt that Sticky has a plan for the development of the likes of Timoko, Valemei, and Smith-Shields, but shifting them into new positions, or new roles, or between starting sides and otherwise, can make it harder for them to develop at the top level. Often people point that the hard bit of NRL is getting up to the pace of decision making needed. This can only be harder if you’re constantly trying to remember what you’re trying to do. And this doesn’t even account for the perverse incentives competition can create when people are fighting for their careers.
Of course this is a balancing act. The last thing that is needed is a bunch of players trying to establish themselves not pulling in the same direction. But it’s a risk that Stuart is likely well aware of. And hopefully one he is capable of managing to success.
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