The Canberra Raiders are in the unenviable place of having to replace George Williams.
It wasn’t meant to end this way. Indeed it technically hasn’t, which is why Canberra has yet to enter the halfback market in any meaningful way. By the time they get in, it’s likely that all corners of the market will be taken. The ‘sure thing’ Adam Reynolds has signed with Brisbane, the ‘up-and-comer’ Nicho Hynes has signed with the Sharks. What’s left is a mixture of known quantities, tight hamstrings and bargain basements.
This would be a different conversation if it wasn’t abundantly that the Raiders were transitioning from Josh Hodgson to Tom Starling next year. As Hodgson showed on the weekend, and has he showed before George came to town, he’s capable of being effective without a dominant halfback. In fact, if Hodgson was sticking around, it would open up the options at seven quite a bit, allowing Canberra to pursue young talent, running halves, promote from within, and a whole host of other combinations that you’re not here to read about.
Alas, these fantasies of mine are just that. Any bridges between Sticky and Josh appear to have too much in common with the fireplaces currently keeping Canberra warm his winter. It’s a shame this is no longer an option; particularly because it seems the catalyst of the collapse of Hodgson and Sticky’s relationship seems to be his on-field relationship with Williams. Regardless, Tom Starling is the new style, and how he plays (direct, and with pace through the middle third on the back of a hopefully dominant forward pack) should mean that the Milk are thinking ball play and organisation from their seven. The club has essentially confirmed this, telling the Canberra Times they were looking to target “a structured organiser” to pair with Jack Wighton.
The shame here is the Raiders are late to the party. The process of ending the relationship with George appears to be messy, and this means that whatever cap space they’re hoping his departure provides won’t be available until the market has been ravaged. This has already had real impacts for the Raiders. They missed out on the perfect partner for Tom in Adam Reynolds. Nicho Hynes is also off the table. They’ve also missed out on Chad Townsend, which is not a concern, but the 800k he signed for highlights the challenge the Raiders could face in overpaying for bad talent.
The remaining options are all flawed. Shaun Johnson would be a good fit alongside Starling and Wighton. He’d be able to play the role of organiser, and is happy to sit on the right. He’s still an elite ballplayer (though not much of a defender). Much is made of his health, and he misses enough games each season to notice, but not as many as you think. I doubt he wants to come to Canberra. The Milk went down that very short path in 2018 already and came back with bupkis. Ash Taylor is off contract too. He’s not ideal – a left side dominant ball-player, either he’d be stuck on the right, or Jack Wighton would get less ball. Yay? He does have a very good short kicking game, which without Williams and Hodgson will be in short supply in Canberra. Regardless, it seems the club has already ruled him out because of recent injury issues.
After that it gets even messier. Mitchell Pearce probably will be gone in Newcastle but he’d be expensive and altogether to MitchellPearcey for my liking. Also the jokes about dogs and Canberra players. I’m too sensitive to support that. Luke Brooks could be out at the Tigers, but if the Raiders are keen on someone playing a ball-dominant organising role next to Jack and Tom, Brooks is not the guy. He’s similar to Pearce in that regard. They look like organisers, but they’re best placed in less dominant roles. Benj Marshall looks flash but he doesn’t tackle (although he almost never loses at Bruce – worth considering) and is 35. Anthony Milford has already been ruled out by the club. From there you’re messing around in the bargain basement.
There’s a temptation to simply use the cap space they have elsewhere. Fix the pack and find a punchy centre. Sit out the race to the bottom of the bargain bin, and look at whether time shakes out other options like it surprisingly did with Adam Reynolds. Canberra could also make sure Harley Smith-Shields and Xavier Savage don’t escape their clutches because money is tied up elsewhere. In the meantime some mix of an experienced but cheap half like Sam Williams or Benji Marshall holds the fort on one-year deal while you see if you can find a diamond in the rough. Think Hynes twelves months ago. That might be external, or it might be Brad Schneider. See if that young talent develops faster than you think, and let the elder statesman steady the ship if it doesn’t until you hit the market again.
This approach also allows the Raiders to present a bit better to the market when it’s time. Right now I would question the sanity of anyone that looked at the smoke coming out of Raiders HQ and ran towards the fire. By next season I suspect anyone who currently doesn’t get along with Coach Stuart will be elsewhere. Canberra will be a quieter environment, and able to make a better pitch as a free agent destination. This of course, relies on the Raiders remaining competitive in the meantime. It’ll be hard without an elite halfback, but it might be even harder with an expensive but mediocre one.
None of these options are good ones. There’s a reason sticky was fighting so hard to keep Williams in Canberra. It does bare the question as to why he’d let his only other elite ballplayer leave the club, but that’s the story of 2021, and a different article. The Raiders need to find a new halfback and they need to do it now. It’s just now might not be the best time.