The Dufty Conundrum

BY DAN

Matt Dufty is an electric ballplayer. He’s as fast as me saying yes to a burger and a pint. He can be more agile than a politician avoiding a question. He’s also a confusing, imperfect and expensive fit for the Canberra Raiders.

Matt Dufty is looking for a new home after the Dragons told him to leave. For those on the outside St George’s disinterest in him may be confusing. When he has space, ball in hand or just an opportunity to hit 5th gear he’s a rare offensive talent. He can create as a primary ball player for others, as a secondary ball player on sweeping plays, and as a support player around the ruck. He has sound ability as a decision-maker, delivering with aplomb the relatively standard pass short/long read that the Raiders ask Jack Wighton to make on the left, and that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has failed to develop consistently on the right. He’s equal 9th in the competition in try assists (12), 24th in line breaks (12), 38th in average tackle breaks (3 per game).

So if he’s such hot shit then why don’t the Dragons want him? Well, partly that’s cost. Dufty has been on a lot of coin during his time at St George. When you’re paying someone top dollar you want to make sure they’re elite for their position.

But isn’t Dufty elite? Well, that’s where it becomes a discussion. The Dragons clearly don’t think so. Following his outing on Thursday night against the Brisbane Broncos, “senior Dragons sources” told the Wide World Of Sports:

He was great in attack but let’s be honest, it was like an under 20s game. Matt is a good kid and he is dynamic when the opposition don’t want to tackle him as was the case last night. But the bottom line is that his defence just isn’t up to the standard you want if you are trying to win a premiership. The fact that no other clubs have made him an offer shows that we are not alone in that thinking.

It’s a familiar story when it comes to Dufty. He’s been weak in defence for his entire career. He’s missed 11 tackles in 2021, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you acknowledge that he’s only made 40. Fullbacks tend to have a lower tackle-efficiency than other positions, mostly because the tackles they have to make are open field or in cover. Even still, Dufty is firmly at the back of the pack. His 68 per cent tackle efficiency a long way behind the elite defensive fullbacks like Gutherson (83%), Tedesco (83%), Brimson (77%), Mitchell (74%), Trbojevic (72%), and of course, the best defensive fullback in the competition, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (85%) (all numbers from NRL.com). Dufty isn’t the worst, but his tackling is certainly a reason he isn’t elite.

Of course, tackling isn’t the only defensive responsibility of fullbacks. Organisation of the defence, from filling in gaps to identifying attacking shapes and shifting resources is an unsung, but arguably important part of modern fullback work. Dufty has never helmed a quality defence, and while he can’t be solely to blame for that (or even predominantly), we only have to look as far as Nicoll-Klokstad to find a fullback that is the difference between a pack of nuffies and an elite defence.

Another part of Dufty’s game that isn’t elite is his poor work in yardage. He averages 145 metres a game, but much of that comes from kick returns but almost none from the tough carries that good sides need from their back three. In broken play or on the back of a pack with a head of steam he’s electric, but hard carries stuck in your own 10 is not Dufty’s game. Compare and contratst to your favourite custodian at the back and Dufty again sits at the back. Gutherson (185m per game), Brimson (157), Teddy (161) and Trbojevic (210). In four complete games this season Nicoll-Klokstad averaged 204 metres a game.

Bringing Dufty to Canberra would solve zero of the problems plaguing the milk in 2021. With Charnze at the back they were an elite defence, as I’ve shown here and here. Without him, well, you watch the games. They’ve desperately missed the yardage work of Charzne, both in getting down the field and also in providing a rest for their fatigued middle forwards. The Milk’s desperate needs are Dufty’s weakest points. Shifting Nicoll-Klokstad to centre isn’t guaranteed to work, and removes him from performing his absolute best skills of organisation, cover defence and hard yard carries.

Spending money on Dufty is reflective of an unwillingness or inability on behalf of the Raiders organisation to face up to the actual problems they have faced this year: a middle that can’t compete. Instead of looking at why their pack has been so thoroughly overwhelmed, they’ve blamed the hooker, then a second rower. Now they’ve decided the fix is at the only position they don’t need to fix. It’s throwing good money after bad. It’s plausible that Sticky thinks all the forward pack needs is a skinny off-season, but punching their spare dollars into a position that is already filled is hardly a good use of cap space. There’s a panic attached – with Charnze in tow the Raiders made a grand final, preliminary final, were 3-1 and up 6-0 (nearly 12) on the unbeatable Panthers. It’s fallen apart since then, and the organisation has abandoned their successes far too quickly for my liking.

The best case I can make for this pursuit is that Stuart sees the mess made of the spine this year and thinks he needs more points in it. Williams left, Hodgson is being pushed out, and all that’s left is the run-first weapons of Starling, Wighton and Nicoll-Klokstad. He sees points scoring binges becoming common under V’Landysball and think Canberra needs to up the creative ante. But even this misdiagnoses the nature of football. Teams aren’t scoring more points because they have more fire-power. They’re scoring more points because middle defences are collapsing. With Dufty instead of Nicoll-Klokstad it doesn’t mean the Raiders would be more competitive, bur rather just increases the amount of points they score when they lose by twenty.

It also makes more sense if Charnze has indicated he’s likely to head back to New Zealand soon. With his family back in New Zealand, Roger Tuivasa-Shek leaving the Warriors, and young phenom Reece Walsh being trialled at six and one, there’s every chance he wants to go home. That would be gutting, but it would make this pursuit more understandable to me. If he hasn’t though, there’s every chance that this chase provides the push to encourage Nicoll-Klokstad to seek security closer to his family (shouts to the hugely dumb twitter idiot (his words) Dave for putting that in my head).

There’s some that would point to the need for speed at some point in the Raiders backline, and I get this desire. Canberra have leaked to Brent Read that they see him as insurance for Charnze’s recovering neck, as well as potentially playing Nicoll-Klokstad on an edge. Neither option is an efficient use of limited cap space. There’s a case for Dufty as a winger, but then again, yardage is 70 per cent of that job and he can’t do it. In addition, if athleticism is an issue in the back five right now, it won’t be in the future, as Harley Smith-Shields, Xavier Savage and Semi Valemei find themselves in first grade on a regular basis.

Many would argue that the Raiders should be hunting talent, and that Dufty is a chance to grab a distressed asset cheap. I guess we’ll see when numbers are talked around a deal. My feeling is that there are cheaper sources of greater potential, not the least within the club’s walls. Having cap space doesn’t mean you have to spend it. That’s how teams end up paying Ben Hunt $1.2m, Corey Norman 900K and Matt Dufty plenty and having no serious finals appearances to show for it.

The one thing this interest can confirm though is that the Caleb Aekins experiment is on its last legs. If Canberra miss out on Dufty, it would make sense to have a look at other options at the back as the season winds down. This will help them establish who should be the primary backup to Nicoll-Klokstad in 2022. Another factor that has some merit is the fact that Dufty is managed by former Raider Clinton Schifcofske. Is there a chance that they’re showing interest as a favour to Choc, in order to get a favourable push at some point in the future? I have no idea if that’s plausible or even possible, but it is rolling around the noggin.

So colour me confused by the Raiders interest. It’s clear they’re interested too. Sticky is on the record to the Canberra Times which only ever happens if he thinks there’s a really good shot of making a deal – the last such time I can remember was during the Curtis Scott negotiation. This is not your usual Raider Raise. The Milk are making a play for Dufty, and there’s a good chance he’s coming.

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