For the second time this year the Canberra Raiders found themselves playing a hooker/lock utility as a back-rower on the weekend. It didn’t work out, and for the second time this season the Milk walked away with nothing. Questions should be asked as to whether the current bench make up best supports Canberra chances in 2021.
When this first happened against the Warriors the result was an edge that was targeted like a heat-seeking missile, allowing the opposition to overcome a halftime deficit and win the game. Last weekend the best team in the competition similarly made hay with a makeshift left edge, and once in this situation the Raiders could never claw their way back into the game.
Both times this occurred Siliva Havili was the unlucky patsy forced to play a position that doesn’t suit his game either defensively or with ball in hand. Havili is a handy back up hooker and a barn-storming bowling ball of a ball-runner. His defence is physical front-on, and he’s capable of dominating much bigger opposition forwards than he has any right to. But his lateral agility in defence is limited and that means he’s susceptible to edge runners that can change direction quickly. It also means he’s less able to provide George Williams the support he needs against the big edge ball-runners that target him incessantly. Havili should not be blamed for this. If ever there was a case of a square rock being forced into round hole this is it. Havili should be providing support to Josh Hodgson or the middle forwards, not rotating to play major minutes on an edge.
It’s confusing that the Raiders have continued to put him in this position. There’s other options on the roster; for example Joe Tapine has spent time at that position often in his career. It seems the view is that the value of Tapine’s contributions in the middle are so substantial now they cannot be spent on an edge. If that’s the case it seems the Raiders need a better balanced roster in order to handle the injuries that they’ve faced that have caused this challenge.
To me at least there’s an argument to carry someone on the bench that can cover edge positions as part of their utility value. The most obvious addition is Corey Harawira-Naera. He can operate as part of the middle rotation, as well as providing cover on the edge (and even centre in a pinch). While I was unimpressed with Harawira-Naera in 2020, and Sticky was similarly displeased with his behaviour in the offseason, the game has evolved to match the more mobile options that he (theoretically) offers.
Another option would be to carry Sebastian Kris as a bench option, able to take minutes as part of the middle rotation, cover edge as well as outside back positions. He was already preferred to Harawira-Naera to start on the edge when Hudson Young was injured. His strong carries seem under-utilised outside George Williams on the right. His best work has already come working off Josh Hodgson, and as such it doesn’t seem ridiculous he could cover 20 minutes as a middle forward as needed. The key problem here is Kris is already starting, and this would require the return of Curtis Scott (or the elevation of Matt Timoko).
Regardless, carrying either Harawira-Naera on the bench would require a tough decision about either Siliva Havili or Tom Starling’s position in the starting 17. The Raiders bench mob approach is driven by being able to rotate excellent and powerful forwards through the middle portions of the game. This allows the starters to spend their tanks in the knowledge they’ll get a 40 minute spell (plus a half time break) before the tail end of the match. Given the outsize role of fatigue in results this year, retaining this weapon is critical. If you’re carrying three utilities on the bench, then you’re weakening your comparative advantage.
Whoever misses out would be profoundly unlucky. Havili has delivered everything that he’s been asked to do in and more in 2021. He’s injected energy into the middle attack, providing a critical support runner to middle forwards and Josh Hodgson, and defended with admirable effort in positions he simply doesn’t have the skill-set for. He’s performed excellently when deployed in the role he was meant for, but given his skill as a backup hooker is inferior to Tom Starling, and his skill on the edge is inferior to either Harawira-Naera or Kris, he becomes ill-fitting to the needs and demands of the Raiders at this moment.
If Havili is preferred it gives the Raiders plenty of middle depth and flexibility to manage the challenges they, and other teams, have faced in 2021 (particularly if paired with Kris). It would also make the Raiders middle relatively more stout defensively if it needed to play Hodgson alongside the backup hooker. But it would potentially stunt Starling’s development, and remove valuable attacking flexibility. Of course neither could be preferred but that would leave the Green Machine vulnerable in an entire new way. Normally I would say you can only go as far as Hodgson can take you, but both Starling and Havili have proven themselves as first grade quality rakes.
However this washes up it seems clear to me that the Raiders need a better in-game solution when they face injuries that impact their edges. It’s arguably cost them two games so far, and the risk of losing touch with the top four is too great.