Just when you thought it was safe to stop latibulating, the Canberra Raiders’ 2021 decided to get that much more harder. The Milk will likely be without three of their most important players for at least next week after Jack Wighton, Josh Hodgson and Josh Papalii were all been charged by the judiciary over the weekend, and could be missing them for up to two, two and five weeks respectively.
When the NRL announced its spur “crackdown” Friday afternoon, any long-time fan of the gods in green had an inkling they’d be impacted. It’s practically a scientific law that all interpretation changes will come back to haunt Canberra, and while that’s fatalistic, it’s also not that wrong (ps I am not a crackpot). I’m not here to tell you whether they are appropriate charges with appropriate grading (I tend to yes and no for what it’s worth). I am however, here to tell you that if you think any Raiders is going to get a judiciary based miracle Tuesday night then you must be new here. I’ll show you around.
Outside of the Baby Raiders game last year, it’s probably been close to 10 years since Canberra have played a game without one of these three players. I suspect Papalli and Hodgson will take early pleas. Jack may have more of a case to fight his case, but Canberra may just have to suck it up and put their marbles in having him and Hodgson available for the Roosters match. The Storm have injuries to Munster and Grant at the moment, and Ryan Papenhuyzen didn’t look crash hot when he was hurt in magic round. Maybe the Raiders can steal one without the big three. Whatever the outcome, Canberra is going to have to find some new solutions to old problems.
Replacing Josh Papalii is the easiest on paper but very hard on the field. Papalii had a truncated game last weekend on account of his incident, but without him the Canberra middle rarely looked dominant. We noted in the game review that even with his relatively low minute count he still was the most penetrative Raiders middle, breaking four tackles. Hudson Young was the only other middle with more than one (Per NRL stats). That stat extends to the rest of the season. Papalii has 25 tackle breaks on the year. Here’s the year to date totals for the rest of the middles from the weekend: 11 (James), 3 (Horsburgh), 2 (Lui), 2 (Guler). Young has 27, but only 11 have them have come since his shift back to the middle. Some of that is style-based – for example Guler does his best work getting advantageous positioning in tackles to get quick rucks – but it also reflects the relative form and abilities of the Canberra middles.
With Papalii out (as well as Sutton), there will be a need to find penetration elsewhere. Joe Tapine (13 tackle breaks year to date) might be recovered from his MCL strain this week, and that suddenly feels like a big deal. Between him and Young (and Corey Harawira-Naera’s improved offensive outing last weekend) there’s a feel of a potential different look, with a bit of mobility, the Raiders pack can offer. This would have been particularly the case if Josh Hodgson was going to spend a lot of time playing his new loose forward role.
Alas Canberra will likely be without Hodgson too, which is a shame. When he came on in the Dogs game he immediately looked the most dynamic and directed part of the Raiders attack. For all the noise about Williams and Wighton needing more early ball, the Raiders set him up as first receiver, trusting him as the primary ball-player through the middle third. I don’t hate it – it’s not his best position, nor the best use of him, but it gets more ball in an elite ball player’s hands- but it has defensive ramifications (particularly if Jack is missing). Against a side with as much discipline as the Storm, having someone with the creativity of Hodgson is critical (just ask the Once Upon a Time in Melbourne game). Alas it’s probably not an option now.
Unless the Raiders get really creative (and move Seb Kris into the middle rotation) the Raiders will have to play more traditionally next week while he’s missing and that may suit fighting the massive Melbourne middle. Corey Horsburgh has the talent, and while his return to first grade hasn’t been quite dominant, I feel he’s got the capacity given the opportunity. There’s an opportunity for Siliva Havili to get more play as a middle forward, utilising his pace and angry bowling-ball running style to great effect. And if Sia Soliola was given a proper run he wouldn’t let anyone down, and would provide a bit of leadership to hopefully stop the pack’s second half defensive malaise. Let’s hope those middles are up to the battle.
Replacing Jack Wighton is actually surprisingly fun. Ok fun is the wrong word, but at least we get to see another facet of George Williams’ play. The most obvious replacement sitting on the Canberra bench in Sam Williams and I’m intrigued by this for the sole reason that he’d be happy to organise the right side, allowing George Williams to be the prime creator for the Canberra attack through the middle and left sides of the ruck. Williams came up primarily playing on the left, and if you’ve been wondering why he was so much more comfortable on leftwards shifts than he was hitting short passes to the right edge this is a likely explanation. We could see a big output from him given this opportunity.
Sticky may opt for as little change as possible and chuck Sam on the left where Smelly can protect him in defence. It wouldn’t be easy for a guy who has played 1 first grade game in the last 18 months to suddenly have to bring down Brandon Smith or Nelson Asofa-Solomona on his own, so that would also make sense. But that’s a problem no matter which side he sits on, so I’m hoping we get to see a side with George Williams playing on his preferred left.
If Sam Williams doesn’t get the call up (and he should, because no Canberra season is complete without Sam) Matt Frawley is the other next likely option, and his left side focus, and left boot, will mean the Raiders (and Williams) won’t have to alter the game plan dramatically. Williams will still swtich to the left on the big set plays. He’ll still be the focal point of the attack, punching the right edge forwards into the right tram track to build the space and momentum for those sweeping movements. Brad Schneider has looked good in what I’ve seen of the NSW cup, and sits on the right mostly. But I suspect he’s a few spots down the depth chart, and debuting against the Storm is a big ask for a rookie.
None of these fixes are ideal, and with Canberra’s season not quite on the line but near enough, it’ll be interesting just what decisions are made, both in fighting at the judiciary and in the team list post that. Replacing stars is never easy. Doing it against the Melbourne Storm (and potentially the Sydney Roosters) is even harder. Hold on Raiders’s fans. This isn’t getting any easier.