Shaun Johnson and the return of the Raider Raise?

BY DAN

The Canberra Times says the Raiders aren’t interested in Shaun Johnson. Buzz Rothfield says they’re side most likely to get him. Johnson’s manager says he’s open to all options. What is going on?

The Raiders are looking like having a bit of cap space this season. This, of course, depends on the George Williams release occurring, and whatever arrangement is made with Josh Hodgson after this season. But it does mean that for the first time in a while, Canberra aren’t just a bit player in the offseason market.

Most agents tend to regard the Raiders like Lyle Lanely regards a town with money (“you know, a football team with money’s a little like the mule with the spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it.”). Over the years we’ve pointed out that teams have used Canberra’s cap space against them, utilising the interest of the Milk to get better deals elsewhere – or as we named it, the Raider Raise (shouts to everyone’s favourite graphic artist Jack Cronin for that name). Ironically, one of our seminal examples of this was when Shaun Johnson used the interest of Canberra in 2018 to garner a million-dollar-deal in Cronulla.

Both sources suggesting Johnson may come to the Raiders are Sydney based. Buzz Rothfield is a massive Sharks fan and a reporter for the Telegraph, and it’s not hard to think he’s been speaking to Johnson’s agent. Similarly, the quotes reported from Johnson’s agent felt as much like taking an ad in the local paper than as part of an interview.

There’s plenty of reason to think Johnson would want to get Canberra to be interested. He’s trying to drum up a new deal. There’s been a bit of a carousel of halbacks heading around the league, and Johnson has only just become part of it. There’s a few teams that may be interested (Bunnies and Dogs seem the most likely), but the available spots are smaller than they were a few weeks ago and Johnson needs to work out where he can head soon.

The Raiders went down this path in 2018 and it didn’t go too far. At the time we were sceptical he would be coming here – primarily because the Raiders had said they didn’t have any cap space, but also because Johnson:

always had a cavalcade of suitors waiting for the Warriors to be too cute by half and let him go. Not in the least the spectre of the Roosters, which potentially drove the Sharks to offer him a longer term deal than was initially suggested.

I wroted it here

This time around it’s a more sluggish market. It may become a scenario for Johnson where Canberra is the suitor with the most cap space, alongside the Dogs. He’ll want to keep both of them involved in the discussion, not the least to drive better offers from more prestigious Sydney clubs.

Less options may make Canberra more appealing, as (hopefully) does the fact that the club was very competitive until whatever happened this last few months took hold. Johnson would also be personally comfortable with the Raiders. He’d no doubt have existing relationships with the Raiders extensive Kiwi collective (when you start writing out the names it gets really long. Maybe we should be called New New Zealand instead of Little England?). It’s also worth noting he’d have an existing relationship with Milk assistant and all round legend Andrew “Mac daddy” McFadden.

On Canberra’s side of the ledger, the Canberra Times has now reported twice this week that Canberra wasn’t interested in Johnson. David Polkinghorne can’t be any clearer than here. This was said to be because Johnson is not a structured organiser. That feels like an old criticism of him that’s not really true these days. I suspect this would also be driven by Johnson’s injury history (given the club has reportedly put a line through Ash Taylor on the same basis).

But putting on my tin-foil hat, there’s a good reason for the Milk to be quiet about wanting Johnson. There’d be no interest in Canberra HQ of being Johnson’s market bolster. If the Raiders want Johnson, they’re likely keen to pay as little as possible. Johnson is only ever going to be a band-aid, a short-term solution as the Raiders transition between Williams and what follows. Think Jason Smith in the mid-00s. An experienced player to keep Canberra competitive while building the bridge to the next generation. One would think Canberra would want to keep any deal well below George Williams’ reported 2022 cost ($650K). A shorter, cheaper deal provides more capacity for Canberra to get back into the market for a less injury-prone, younger target after next season if they don’t like what is coming through the system. Blowing all their cap space on a guy that doesn’t play every game is a lot less appealing than a team friendly deal that maintains flexibility to bolster the roster at other points. Being the clubhouse leader in terms of cap space means keeping quiet and keeping a lid on the market.

From a football perspective it would make sense to me for Canberra to make a play for Johnson. He’s a perfect fit with the personnel they’re likely to have available next year, He plays right side, and has all the ball-playing ability in the world. You might remember him from such movies as “making your edge defence look like tap-dancing clowns” but he hasn’t really done that for a few years now. He’s more guile than grace these days. In 2020 he was equal first in the competition in try-assists (23) and 4th in line engagements on about the same amount of ball as George Williams (42 possessions per game to Williams’ 45). His set of creative skills would allow Wighton to remain the fulcrum of set plays on the left side. He’s a smart kicker, and a handy goal kicker given the Raiders first two choices in that regard aren’t available.

If there’s a reason to be wary it’s defensive. Johnson has never been an excellent defender. He missed his share of tackles in 2020 and in the years before. His presence would mean that the edge defenders (hypothetically Corey Harawira-Naera and Curtis Scott) would need to step up their game defensively. Brenton Nikora had seven missed tackles, and Jesse Ramien’s two alongside Johnson’s four in his return last week in a Sharks team that wasn’t challenged by the Titans. Given teams tend to load up their attack on their on that side of the park, if Canberra were to get Johnson in the nation’s capital, it would mean a step up for the existing personnel (or, a return to Hudson Young in his best position on the right edge).

Regardless, I’m interested to see how this plays out. Right now I’m seems like another case of the Raider Raise, at least until there’s some indication from Raiders HQ that their feelings for Shaun have changed in some way. It feels like this is but a pipe dream. But rugby league is a strange place in 2021, so don’t rule it out yet.

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