For what may well be the most important game of Canberra’s season, coach Ricky Stuart has ‘rested’ Josh Papalii.
I guess you could say drastic times call for drastic measures. The logic is pretty straightforward. Papalii has been below his best in 2021, as have many of the Canberra players. The one week off should give the big man time to rest, and reflect, on what he needs to do to turn around his season. His colleagues will see the un-droppable sitting and realise that no one’s job is safe, and be spurred on to take accountability, change, and turn the season around.
And for Stuart it’s worked before. He famously dropped Papalii around the same time in 2018. It was a moment many credit with not only turning around his performances in that season, but also his career, inspiring him to the heights we saw in 2019 and 2020. Sticky has pointed to a similar purpose for this decision, saying “Papa needs to go back and find the old Papa, because we’re all missing it.”
Papalii hasn’t been at his game-changing best in 2021, but it’s not like anyone (bar maybe Ryan Sutton) is redlining right now. Big Papa has the most running metres of any Canberra forward and the least missed tackles per game. He’s set up tries as one of the few Canberra forwards capable of getting away an offload, leading to tries in each of the last two games when he dropped a ball back for the hooker. While (as we’ve pointed out) the defence of the middle has been a problem, this is as much about Stuart’s use of his bench as it is of the performance of the middles. Removing the top performing forward because he’s not at his best ignores that he is still the side’s best option.
It’s hard to know what to make of this. We don’t get to see behind closed doors, but to me it’s seemed that for the past few weeks Coach Stuart has appeared at a loss as to how to motivate, or properly direct, this group of men to succeed. He’s tried coddling them (after the Warriors loss), he’s tried making noise about the other team (after Panthers loss), and he’s tried calling out the side (after the Eels loss). Now he’s turned to dropping players. It didn’t work when it was Joe Tapine last week. Against a top tier side in rampant form, with Canberra’s season, if not on the line then approaching it, it feels like borderline panic.
The Raiders middle will play a big role in deciding the outcome on Thursday, and they will be without their best player. Ricky Stuart spits more about football yelling on the sideline than I will know in a million lifetimes, but I can’t pretend I understand this decision. It would make much more sense if Ricky picked his best 17, of which Josh Papalii is certainly a part. Shuffling the chairs on the deck isn’t going to turn around this ship.
It’s a risk from Stuart. He’ll either look like a genius or a fool come Friday, when the reality is he’s neither of these things. But if it doesn’t work, it means he’s got one less lever to pull. At some point this side will have to turn themselves around without prompting and poking.