The Way Forward

BY DAN

Far out that was a thing hey?

First Hudson Young’s injury proved too much to risk. Then Joe Tapine hurt himself in such a way we were all glad it was “just” a rolled ankle. Seb Kris and Ryan James clashed heads and all hell broke loose, meaning Curtis Scott and his broken ribs had to tough out 80 minutes of football, and Jarrod Croker had to have his finger re-attached (figuratively). And this was all just to get through a game of football. And then we found that Harley Smith-Shields ruptured his bicep (which from my inexpert understanding is a nice way of saying he tore it from the bone.

It was a helluva weekend for the roster managers in Braddon. They had more injuries in a single weekend than Penrith had last season (dramatisation: may not have happened). Luckily the Raiders are somewhat prepared for this (as much as you can be prepared for chaos). There will be a series of interesting conversations between Sticky and his coaching staff to work out just how to put Humpty back together again.

They need to do it quick too. The Raiders have a tough little period of the draw to come through on the next few weeks. Titans (away), Panthers (away) and Eels (home) mean the the right decisions need to be made to ensure they get through that period with at least two wins to their name.

The first and most important addition is (hopefully) the return of Hudson Young. Through two rounds of footy he was a critical part of the Raiders on both sides of the ball. His return will stabilise the right edge defence and do much to address many of the problems created last weekend. His rare combination of lateral agility and brute physicality is hard to replace.

Who joins him on that right edge is another question. Curtis Scott was heroic in battling through cracked ribs, but he can’t do that again. The temptation would be to slot Sebastian Kris into his spot. Given Sticky was happy to move him from left centre to right edge back-rower, you’d assume he’d be happy to push him two spots over in the defensive line. Kris has to pass concussion protocols to play, and if he isn’t successful it seems like Matt Timoko is the most likely fill-in. It’ll be exciting to see the young man get a substantial run in the top grade if that occurs. Given his form this year, the talent he carries, it’s particularly cruel timing for Harley Smith-Shields to suffer such a substantial injury.

The more complicated question comes in replacing Joe Tapine and (potentially) Ryan James in the middle. Tapine seems certain to miss some weeks, which is just heartbreaking. He’s been the Raiders best forward in recent times which is saying something. James is a theoretical possibility to play if he passes concussion protocols, but given we spent a good portion of Saturday worried he’d broken his jaw, I suspect he’ll be missing too.

It may be wise revert to three middles on the bench and a utility for the next few weeks. My theory of Starling’s inclusion was that Sticky saw it as a luxury coming from the knowledge that Papalii, Tapine, James and Sutton could punch out big minutes if needed. Without two of that four, the ability to cover more minutes from less players has reduced. This means the luxury of only two frontline forwards on the bench seems risky. You can decide if you want Havili or Starling in that utility role; one offers more variety in the roles he can play, the other offers more variety in what he can do with the ball. I’d take the latter but I’m not going to call the cops if you’d prefer the King of Tonga. It would be particularly cruel if either player missed out given their efforts on the weekend.

It seems likely that Ryan Sutton will come into the starting role at 13. His output this season (139m per game and 31.3 tackles) is worthy of the role, but so is is trimmed figure, physical defence and the surprising improvement of his lateral movement. As we saw on the weekend, he remains willing and able to cover big minutes as needed, which is an important skill when injuries seem to be particularly prevalent across the league.

The Raiders will need to then find three middle forwards. Given emerging stars Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh are waiting in the wings it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them get a game. Dunamis Lui may also return, and could reprise his “opener” role he’s been used in recently, or perhaps join the bench. Horsburgh’s offload will be a weapon that can make up for the absence of Tapine. Guler can provide the quick feet in the line that James has done so well this season, taking advantage of the fact that there’s fewer defenders around to stop him from bending and breaking the line.

It’s crazy to think for all the carnage of the weekend that what is outlined above is essentially a reprisal of the forward pack that took the Green Machine through the 2019 preliminary final and the grand final, just with Ryan Sutton in the place of Joe Tapine. Such is the strength built into this roster, that even with destruction the Raiders still have young, talented forwards with the skills that can take advantage of, and survive, the pressure NRL in 2021 puts on middles.

The Raiders took a paddling in the injury stakes on the weekend. But there’s still a wealth of talent able to perform at a level that means that the coming path, while treacherous, is still navigable.

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