Season Long Impact

BY DAN

As if Canberra’s season couldn’t become more of a train-wreck, news emerged over the weekend that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad would miss the rest of the 2021 season. This was confirmed by the club Sunday night.

The impact of this is plain to see. Canberra has fallen apart since he left the ground after suffering an injury in the Panthers game. Three wins and one loss with Charnze, a single victory over the lowly Bulldogs without him. As we’ve already established in these pages, the Canberra defence is elite with Nicoll-Klokstad at the helm. You can read the whole thing here, but at the time (after the Cowboys game) the long and short of it was, without him:

Canberra’s defence has fallen apart (since Charnze was injured), 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).

I worked that out with all my fingers.

After a few more weeks that’s pretty much just as bad at 0.71pps. And that marginal improvement might make you feel good, but the worst defence in the competition (now the Bulldogs) is at 0.69pps. Normal caveats apply (volatile numbers, heaps of variables, I can’t count properly) but it’s worth noting that Canberra, without Charnze, have a pretty significant sample showing they’re the worst defence in the league.

Drink it in (no don’t it’s poison). Of course this is more to do with the collapse of Canberra’s middle, but it’s no coincidence that Nicoll-Klokstad’s absence has been a huge part of this.

Indeed the inability to solve that major problem without Charnze suggests he might play a bigger role in that middle defence that we’d thought. As we’ve noted before, his influence in organisation is huge, and could be playing a role in making sure people are in the right places. He is also an elite gap-filler, capable of making physical hits in the line before jumping back around to his custodial duties. Even more, his preternatural ability to be there (you know there) to save tries is something has clearly been a huge part of Canberra’s defence in recent years. One only has to see how many times Caleb Aekins was not quite there in recent weeks to see how small that margin is, and how big a difference it makes.

We’d been hoping the sixish weeks initially announced would be it, and his return would be the circuit breaker that would fix all the pain this season is causing. Unfortunately, he’ll be on ice for the rest of the season. It’s not a bad outcome in the grand scheme of things. If Canberra’s season keeps going south, then it’s a low value play for Charnze to push his way back, particularly given the spinal nature of his injury. It was initially reported that he might be able to return towards the end of the season, so if things do turn around without him, there’s possibly a chance he could be a nitrous boost to a late season finals run.

It also means the Raiders will get an extended look at Caleb Aekins. While he doesn’t have the defensive skills of compatriot, he has given Canberra a look at what their offence can do with a bit more ball play from their fullback position. It’s hard to know to what extent Aekins is developing organisationally as a defender, but he’s young, off-contract after this season, and given the Raiders appear to be going nowhere good, it’s worth working out whether he’s worth keeping around beyond this season.

There’s a long season still to go, and if things don’t get better there’s also an option of the Raiders using the position to test out some other options. I was surprised Bailey Simonnson hasn’t been given a shot yet, given he was used as the backup to Nicoll-Klokstad in 2019. In recent weeks I’ve been impressed by his defensive effort (if not always the outcome) and his yardage work. He’s got the best set of hands in the squad, and supported by Semi Valemei and Jordan Rapana’s yardage ability, it would be an effective back three. I’d love to see what he can do in ball playing options too. Simonsson is only 23, and preparing him as a potential option at the back seems like a prudent strategic move given his contract last longer than Aekins, and the nature of Nicoll-Klokstad’s injury.

Other young options are also enticing. Xavier Savage played fullback for NSW cup on the weekend and if you don’t know who that is, buddy, go watch clips because he is fast, both straight line and in terms of agility. It will be a few more rounds (round 16) before he can play first grade. That would give him a bit of experience in the role at Cup level before progressing. I’ve no idea what Savage’s best position will be in first grade, but given his talent, it’s definitely worth finding out if that’s fullback. What better time to give him a look and taste but the back end of a dead season?

These are nice things to think about, but the really sadness should be with Charnze. Surgery is a big deal, and to be going through this without his family nearby to support him would be harrowing. I hope he has support, and I hope he gets to see his kids before he goes under for such serious surgery. I hope it all works out well and he’s back playing for the Canberra Raiders next season.

Because the Raiders clearly need him.

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