The gambles that don’t pay off

BY DAN

When the Canberra Raiders signed George Williams it was a gamble. When they announced Williams would be released immediately today, it was clear that bet didn’t deliver in the way anyone had hoped.

Signing George Williams was a gamble. They were effectively picking him over the incumbent Aidan Sezer, who at the time of Williams’ signature was halfway through playing a critical role in the Raiders march to the grand final. Williams doubled down on so many of the strengths already present in the side. He was predominantly left side dominant in England, and a devastating running half, which the Milk had found they already had one of. He was ball dominant, which meant finding a balance between him, Hodgson and Wighton would be a battle. And they were flying him out from the Super League, just hitting his prime and potentially great, but risky enough that smarter men than me (the boys at the Fifth and Last podcast) suggested he was more akin to the rocks and diamonds of Blake Austin than a guaranteed starter. Many an Englishmen have flown to Australia and failed, and Canberra were risking a set of grand-final making combinations for the hope of something better. A proper international half could have been all Canberra needed to find that final gear needed; the way they could match their newfound defensive steel with offensive flair. They weren’t willing to stand pat and make another run just as is (or was). They were willing to risk it all for the chance at great.

Indeed at the time we thought it showed two things: the faith the Raiders hierarchy had in Jack Wighton, and in their own ability to help Williams develop. We’d noted at that point that Josh and Jack had a good relationship, with Hodgson happy to feed (and sometimes over feed) the new five-eighth the ball. Clearly Canberra were backing themselves to mesh the players, and their competing styles into something not just functional, but elite. And for a time there was the possibility. When the Raiders went 3-0 to start 2020 they looked like they’d work it out. When they put a hurt on the Storm for the last of those three wins they looked damn near terrifying, and the balance didn’t feel like a problem. George was playing his part, seemingly thriving on the right, his bustling running style threatening the line, and throwing tremendous cut-out passes, one so perfect against the Storm I described it thus:

The fake-shuffle-floater combo that landed on Cotric’s flying chest for the Raiders second try was so beautiful people will name children after it. 

But like most projects it wasn’t a linear progression, and over time it became clear that the fit needed work. Partly this was because Canberra’s forward pack was falling apart from injury and struggling under the new rules, but there was no doubt that balance was a work in progress. Freddy Foreshadowing got pushed into that special storage spot when Hodgson tore his ACL. The story goes that suddenly everyone’s roles were clear. It was Williams show to direct, with the replacement dummy-half comfortable playing third fiddle to him and Jack Wighton. Combined with three forwards simultaneously having career years Williams felt like he was not just settling in, but excelling. It wasn’t enough to go as far as 2019, but it sure as hell was fun to watch for a bit. And the promise for 2021 felt massive, and that’s just made the let down, and Williams’ departure, that much sadder.

2020 was a special and different time, a season played through changing rules and lockouts. The volatile environment ultimately sowed the seeds of George’s departure. Covid is a prick, and the separation from his family and the impending arrival of a newborn clearly created an unsustainable situation. I can’t really begin to understand how separated George felt from those that mattered to him. When push comes to shove most of us choose our families over our professional environment. When 2021 fell into the hole it did, partly due to the Raiders inability to adjust to the changing game, it meant that the pressure to leave was met with no pull to stay.

In the end it ended badly because that’s how things end. George (understandably) wanted out, and Ricky Stuart got frustrated with a perceived lack of commitment. It becomes a battle of narratives. Williams says he didn’t want to leave until after the season. Sticky and Don Furner felt the situation was untenable. If it was causing a cloud of the Canberra set up, it wasn’t the only one. We’ll have more to say on that another time.

People will suggest it’s the end of the ‘English experiment’ for Canberra. I would caution against that. The Raiders will always need to look in places others don’t for talent. It’s their comparative advantage. They still have four players on the roster from the UK, and they’ll need to be sure these players don’t feel isolated or scared to admit their own concerns about being homesick. It’s a completely understandable feeling, and no matter how many footy mates there are to look after you, nothing beats being able to see the people you love. As long as Covid is stopping us from travelling easily, this will be a risk for the current squad.

There’s no win here. Just a sad ending to something that promised to be more. All we can do is thank George for his time in green and hope he finds stability and happiness with his family back in England. The Raiders and George tried for something great and it didn’t pay off. That’s the nature of gambles. It ended badly, that’s the nature of endings.

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