Recency bias is a helluva drug.
The flux of life and the change of the last 12 months sometimes makes it hard to remember what came before it. When analysing the Canberra Raiders, 2019 may be prominent in our minds, but we are not immune to this phenomena. The before times are sometimes forgotten in the rush to point to the now.
Without wanting to go all Dre on you, there should be more interest and excitement about Bailey Simonsson in the lead up to the 2021. His emergence in 2019 was a sudden, the trajectory staggering. Here was a guy that had barely gotten the idea of rugby league. He was all arms and legs, stronger than he looked, but still physically behind many of the talented backs he would face. He wasn’t a brutal tackle-breaker like a Leilua or a Cotric. That he was so immediately successful was due more to his football skills, his nouse, and a hardworking attitude that saw him willing to take hard carries even if he could occasionally get overwhelmed. He was so successful that Coach Stuart carried him as a surplus back through the 2019 finals; a potential game-breaker that could cover all five backline positions.
His early success gave the impression that anything was possible. 2020’s consolidation was hampered by injury, and part of me feels that excitement over his potential was tempered by the Raiders relative inconsistent start to 2020. His metres were down (118 per game in 2019 to 105 in 2020), but that wasn’t so far behind his opposite winger Nic Cotric (111m per game), and more than his replacement Semi Valemei (97 metres per game). His defensive metrics were up, perhaps reflecting a growing comfort with the top grade and the consistency of a clearer role.
Of concern, and perhaps reflecting his physique and emphasis on skill rather than athleticism, was his lack of penetration in the line. A sole line break and ten tackle breaks over his seven games was well below pretty much the rest of the backline. Weighing just 92kg during the 2020 season (about the same as the captain and noted small dude Jarrod Corker), Simonsson was at a disadvantage, and it meant the idea of pairing him with Croker became a size-risk on both sides of the ball. Given much was made in the off-season of the lack of penetration in the Green Machine, it’s easy to see why even though most pencil Simonsson into the starting line-up, a degree of tempering occurred with expectations. The burgeoning backline options (and the lack of certainty about what the best unit looks like) meant that Bailey’s talent was just one amongst many. And those he is in competition with had already shown they can power through a tackle.
Bailey responded in the best way possible. Training the house down is kind of an off-season trope, and marvelling over chiselled physiques becomes the tarot cards of football fans (like Ryan “ohmygod” James *pours water on self*). You see what you want in them. Having said that, being fit is one thing, but the hulk and bulk that Simonsson has put on seems targeted. A recognition, if you will, that his range of talents has got him here, but to succeed needs another weapon.
That’s an extra 5kg of muscle on Bailey’s shoulders. That he’s achieved that while recovering from serious shoulder surgery shows his commitment to improvement and recovery. If it doesn’t overwhelm his pace and his skill, then it can bridge the physical gap, and allow his other talents more space to shine. Saying this means Bailey is ready to make a leap is a stretch. Many a player has got themselves into rip roaring shape, bulked up or slimmed down, and achieved three-fifths of not much the season after. But pre-season isn’t about winning the premiership, it’s about putting yourself in the best position to succeed.
Bailey has done that. It’s time to remind the world just how good he can be.