The Canberra Raiders are missing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. His replacement Caleb Aekins has not had his best few weeks. Is it time to turn to the exciting, emerging talent of Xavier Savage?
If you’ve paying attention to these pages, you’ll know the Canberra Raiders are missing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad an awful amount. His defensive work has been a critical starch to the Canberra improvement over 2019 and 2020. His unceasing energy for crucial hit ups and yardage work compounded this; both getting the Raiders good field positioning resting the middle forwards. He wasn’t perfect, but like my man Robin Williams said, no one ever is. What’s mattered is that he’s perfect for us.
Caleb Aekins is a different beast to Charnze. He’s not been as strong in yardage, which has put more pressure on the already struggling forward pack. His kick returns have been fine, right up the point he gets tackled, monstered, and makes it near impossible on the person taking the next yardage carry. His best work in attack is as a secondary ball player on sweep movements but because of how games have played out he’s had limited opportunities to put that to work, despite earning the trust of Jack Wighton on leftward sweeps.
But most of all he’s not been the defensive presence the Raiders need from a fullback. Aekins has 9 try causes on the season; only Curtis Scott and Bailey Simonsson have had more. While we often not the limitations of try cause statistics in these pages – they tend land on the shoulder of the outside defenders like Scott and Simmo when the weakness has been on the middle – but for a Aekins those numbers don’t feel unfair. His positioning on short kicks hasn’t been awesome (see the Cows loss), he’s struggled with bombs (see the Roosters loss) and he’s been found out when he’s had to defend in the line (gestures more generally).
If there ever was a time to look at other options in many positions, it’s the bye week. Positional changes need to be deliberate, and balance the need to address the problems the Raiders are facing without sacrificing the long term. Particularly when the short term is so bleak. In the short term Canberra needs better yardage, better kick returns and better defensive position and efforts. Unfortunately (again) for the Raiders the best person for the job isn’t available this season. And none of the replacement options solves all problems.
Xavier Savage is so exciting that Megan Thee Stallion has already written a song in tribute to him (I assume). He is lightening fast with electric agility and some handy creativity in attack. He is so much a future star in the Raiders backline that he left SG Ball and went straight into the starting fullback role in NSW Cup, presumably to get him as many opportunities to test the limits of his abilities as possible (NB: as pointed out by Matt from the Green Machine Podcast, Savage didn’t leave SG Ball, the season ended). The Cup team is already trusting him as a secondary ball player, utilising him on sweep movements, and allowing him the freedom to create. On the weekend this saw him grubber for himself and nearly score (curse his fumbling hands!). It’s all still developing; he’s barely had a chance to breath in senior footy,
But he’s raw. In the loss to the Bears he got cold beaten twice in defence. Once came when he gave the sideline to a winger on a break and was beaten cold. The second came when he was at marker on an anodyne crash over try by the dummy half. Both were errors that are expected in developing footy players but rarely forgiven in the top line.
Fullback is already one of the most difficult defensive positions in rugby league. It’s like the captain of the defence. You’re required to identify weaknesses and deploy the line accordingly. If there’s a gap that can’t be filled it has to be done by you. It means sometimes you’re effectively defending in the A gap. Sometimes you’re filling in on an edge. Doing this while making sure you’re always in position for a kick makes it a spot best suited for experienced footballers. Last year the Raiders were practically forced to let Semi Valemei develop in plain sight. A wing position is comparatively more simple. Take hard runs, follow your centre in. Don’t drop bombs. It was still a trial by fire for the young man.
Putting such pressure on Savage at fullback is one thing when things are running smoothly in the top team, but when first grade is as stable as a tired toddler, it feels a second step of risk to the young man’s confidence, and ability to learn anything other than bad habits. It’s eating your future because you’ve spoiled present. One of the reasons the Storm seem to have such an unending bevy of talent is that rookies come into the team with defined roles, clear expectations and support from experienced players. It’s not really available to Canberra right now.
That’s not to say Savage shouldn’t play first grade this year. When a season is an apparent write-off as this one is, it’s worth getting your youth through to test themselves against the best. It’s not just a chance for them to measure themselves, but also can help with roster decisions in the coming clean out. But allowing a bit more time to test the waters at the Cup level, and perhaps an easier transition position in first grade, feels a better long term approach for Savage, and the club.
There are other options if Sticky decides to move on from Aekins. Bailey Simmonson was Charnze’s back up in 2019 and 2020 until a shoulder injury cut that short. His yardage effort is always top notch, if not always effective. He’s definitely a safer pair of hands that Aekins (and possible the best in the side). His defensive abilities are hard to asses given he spends much of this time on the wing, but more than once he’s gotten in a bad position out there.
Jordan Rapana is another option. This feels more like a Sticky selection. He’s reliable in the sense you know he’ll do a great job in yardage, and put his body on the line when needed. I’m not certain he’s necessarily safer under the high ball, but the fact teams rarely kick in his direction suggests he’s not the worst option. In defence I wouldn’t think he’d be a perfect decision maker, but he’d do everything at 100 miles an hour which goddammit the Raiders need right now. If Aekins is moved, Simonsson is my preferred short term option. Pair him with some big yardage wingers (Rapana and Valemei come to mind) and you could be solving a few problems.
This season has been the equivalent of ordering your favourite burger and getting nothing but a rancid mince on a mouldy bun. Pouring your favourite hot sauce on it won’t change that, and just wastes perfectly good sauce. Savage isn’t going to save this year, and every decision made for him should be about Canberra’s future beyond this kidney stone of a year. I can’t wait to see him in first grade, but I don’t think the time is now.