In round five the Canberra Raiders were battling the Penrith Panthers. They led 6-0 when Villiame Kikau’s swinging arm struck the back of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s head. The custodian would leave the ground shortly after, before being ruled out under the Head Injury protocols, and later finding out he had done greater damage.
Since he left the field, Canberra’s defence has fallen apart, conceding 91 points in the 122 sets that followed. This is good for 0.75 points per set (pps), which means the Raiders have been yielding more points per set than the team with the worst defence (Wests Tigers have conceded 218 points in 300 sets, or 0.73 pps). It’s not good.
Without Charnze, the defence has been a calamity. With him though, the Raiders have conceded just 62 points in 185 sets at a rate of 0.34 pps. While it doesn’t compare to the brutal defence of the Penrith Panthers (44 points in 269 sets, or 0.16 pps), it does favourable compare with other elite defences, like the Eels (0.30 pps), the Storm (0.34 pps) and the Roosters (0.34 pps).
Before you get carried away, you need to treat these numbers with all the salt mined at Wieliczka. They are rubbery. For starters they’re pretty small sample sizes. They aren’t against comparable teams. I counted them, including hand-counting the sets at the start of the Panthers game. I can’t get through an article without typos, you think I can actually do basic arithmetic and not mess it up? No one believes you.
More importantly, there is clearly more variables than just Charnze in Canberra’s collapse. Shit, this week we wrote a piece about how proper bench rotations are the most important thing the Raiders need to fix and quick. There’s a lot going on with the Green Machine’s defence that has bugger all to do with the fullback position. Regardless, it’s an indicator that matches what our eyeballs are seeing: while Caleb Aekins is doing a stand-in role, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is very much missed.
We all knew when Charnze when down we would miss him. He’s generally safe at the back (except for some weird thing with bombs occasionally). He’s a scything ball-runner with an almost endless motor that drags Canberra out of their own end by taking multiple, penetrative, yardage runs on sets. He’s a developing ball-player, who’s strong runs and positional play are critical parts of the Canberra attack. But what has occurred in the last three weeks has highlighted that his most elite skill is often unseen through the television screens.
There are three aspects of fullback play that are critical to a defence, and generally they are functions in which Nicoll-Klokstad excels. Firstly, fullbacks play an important role moving defenders around and balancing the defensive line. This requires constant communication and assessment from the custodian, including involving themselves at critical junctures of the defensive line to ensure appropriate numbers. When this goes wrong the results are glaringly obvious. For example we can see this on the Cowboys first try on Saturday night. Canbera simply didn’t have the numbers on the blind, and as soon as the ball got away from the ruck, two people were trying to stop three, and it was always going to be a problem.
This try also highlighted another underappreciated aspect of Nicoll-Klokstad’s play: he has a stunning ability to cover for the mistakes of his colleagues. No defensive line is perfect, and fullbacks need to anticipate weaknesses and clean up the errors of others. In Canberra’s round four clash with the Titans we got to see this perfectly twice, firstly when Charnze covered for a miss at the ruck.
In this game we can an almost replica to the Cowboys first try. This time however, Nicoll-Klokstad can be seen trailing across from the middle, and he’s in position to make a try-saving tackle on Anthony Don.
Fullbacks also have a more obvious defensive role, and Aekins also got caught on two separate grubbers. Both were very good kicks, but both were aimed for the edge players following the ball. You can see below that on both occassions Aekins is in the vicinity of the ball, and maybe even properly positioned, but he simply doesn’t get to the ball first.
At the time we thought it was positioning and we are happy to be corrected otherwise. It may have just been two perfectly weighted kicks, or perhaps a matter of fatigue. Regardless, the Raiders fell pray to a play twice that would normally be at worse a repeat set.
It’s unfair to suggest the above as reasons to suggest Caleb Aekins isn’t up to the job. He’s been exemplary both in effort and execution so far. He simply isn’t Nicoll-Klokstad. That’s no shade on him. It’s just a recognition that Charnze is elite at what he does, and a key part of making the Raiders defence function.
Unfortunately he’s going to be out a while. Canberra are going to have make do. This just highlights how hard that job will be.