The cost of the CNK injury

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders have been kicked in the nuts by fate, with reports emerging that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad could miss up to two months with a bulging disc in his neck.

The injury itself is scary, and we hope that Charnze takes all the time he needs to get healthy. Apparently surgery may be an option that could elongate his stay on the sidelines, but given the nature of the issue, we’d hope he focused on what can ensure his long-term health rather than the Canberra Raiders short term interests. It’s hard not to think of a similar injury suffered by BJ Leilua early in the 2019 season. From what we can tell this injury isn’t as worrying as Leilua’s, but frankly anything involving necks and discs should have everyone being cautious.

The impact will be severe. People tend to focus so much on what Charnze doesn’t do for Canberra (i.e his still developing ball play as a second man on sweeping plays) that they forget the central significance of what he does do. He’s a critical ball-runner, taking hit-ups as effectively as many middle forwards. The 171 metres he’s averaging a game (per NRL.com) leads the team this season, but even this understates just how important this is to Canberra. So often on tough sets it’s Nicoll-Klokstad that turns it around, using his agility to make half breaks and bring momentum to sets. He’s averaging three tackle breaks a game, second only to Jordan Rapana, and he has the second most carries of over 8 metres (after Josh Papalii). Basically he’s a critical weapon to Canberra’s yardage game.

As importantly will be how much the Raiders miss the unsung role that Nicoll-Klokstad performs is the organisation of the Canberra defence. This is an unseen skill that fullbacks need – they see the whole field, so it’s their job to balance the defence, shift people around and, where necessary, fill a gap or cover an overlap. You don’t need to look much further than the Titans game to see how good he is at that. Not do you need to look past last weekend to see how Canberra’s defensive balance can fall apart without him.

It’s a profound shame because Nicole-Klokstad has been in career best form. In recent weeks he’s been testing the defensive line even more in attack (as opposed to being *just* a Boxer-style workhorse), and many of the good things that have happened for the Raiders have been on the back of his good work. Offloads, and scything runs have been part of the story, and he seems to have enjoyed the smidgen extra space around the ruck that the new rules have given him. It’s frustrating that we won’t get to see that continue to develop for another few months.

The good fortune that Canberra have is that they have a ready made replacement already on the roster. Caleb Aekins is like a CNK-lite. He’s a strong carry and reliable at the back – his most notable first grade moment at Penrith was punching out 300 metres on the ground in a single game. He’ll slot in around the ruck to provide support on any half-breaks that are made. He’s not a creator, but given the Raiders are still working out how to get the best out of their three ball-players, adding a fourth doesn’t seem a priority. Aekins will essentially do many of the things that Charnze does (hopefully somewhere approaching as effectively), without requiring the Raiders to alter their style of play, or their personnel. Given the potential time Nicoll-Klokstad could be out, there’s less of a need to paper over the cracks and more of a need to use a specialist.

Again this feels like a deliberate ploy for Canberra in how they’ve built this roster. They have back-up at every position, and almost every understudy is ready to sing the same tune the squad is already belting out. We haven’t seen him play first grade in green yet, but I have a feeling he’ll be a useful replacement. If he’s a success, just chalk it up to another with for Peter Mulholland.

If Aekins hasn’t proven himself to Sticky in the few cup games, there are other options on the squad. Jordan Rapana shifted to the back during the game on the weekend. He’s a strong carry but continues to make decisions that may make Sticky more keen for a cool head at the back. I’d love to see Bailey Simonsson get a shot. He’s got plenty of talent, and would be a terror utilising his agility through the middle, but he was overlooked for the fill-in position on the weekend, which surprised me, and it still finding his feet on the wing, so I’d be surprised if he was preferred.

There are options outside the regular 17. Adam Cook is a based god, but it feels like he’s a few rungs down the depth chart. They could even unleash Albert Hopoate. There’s even more options if you start talking about how to include Curtis Scott, Seb Kris and Jarrod Croker in the same line up with Bailey Simonsson. Looks like Teamlist Tuesday will be closely watched again.

There a plenty of options, but make no mistake about it, this Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad injury will be a problem for Canberra. Charnze has been a massive part of what has worked for the Raiders, both this year and the preceding ones. It’s another obstacle in the way of the Milk and premiership glory, but it’s one they’re capable of overcoming.

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