The Canberra Raiders enter the second half of their season this weekend in search of answers. What has gone wrong? Can they fix it? And how will it get better? These are all big questions that will be answered over the coming weeks. There are some smaller questions though, and one of those is what role Bailey Simonsson will have in the coming months and over the rest of his Canberra career.
If anything had been made clear in recent weeks, it was that Caleb Aekins was not having the best time of it. Partly this wasn’t his fault; we’ve noted a few times how important Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is to the Raiders’ defence. In short Nicoll-Klokstad turns what has otherwise leaked like a sieve into a rock solid outfit. Aekins, like Simonsson will be, was on a hiding to nothing to fix what has been a weakness in contact, and in endurance from the middle forwards. He didn’t have organisational skills to fix the mess, or the defensive capabilities to be the saviour of last resort that Nicoll-Klokstad so often is. He also wasn’t capable of the yardage work necessary to get the Raiders down the ground, and get the forwards some rest. Aekins may well be a good fullback, but in turns out he exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, Canberra’s frailties.
If you’ve followed these pages you’ll know we’ve been intrigued by the idea of Bailey as a fullback for some time. It’s his preferred position, and one that best suits his mix of talents. He is an unquestionably talented athlete, one of those people that are good at whatever sport they put their minds to. He’d barely had a chance to acclimatise himself to rugby league before he was playing a crucial role in Canberra’s 2019 title run. He has good pace and impressive skills (particularly when catching high kicks), and I can’t help but be a bit optimistic his agility will be suited to stepping through the traffic around the ruck as a support player, or taking on the line as the second-man on a sweep play. His ball playing ability is unknown at this stage, but given his good hands and time spent playing rugby sevens I’ve got hope for his potential in that regard. Aekins had good passing ability, and was clearly trusted by Jack (sometimes to a fault). There’s potential for Simonsson to offer a suped-up version of Aekins’ offerings in those situations.
The criticisms of Simonsson usually revolved around his ability in yardage and his defensive decision making. He’s beefed up this year, and while his yardage output hasn’t increased (his metres per game are 111 metres per game, below his career high of 118 in 2019 but above his 2020 numbers), he has the third highest runs of greater than 8 metres for the team this season (behind Papa and Sutton). Combined with an average of 40 plus post-contact metres a game, this reflects an improved ability to win the contact in yardage work. The Raiders have been desperate in need for more metres from their back three in particular, and with Simonsson’s improved efforts surrounded by Semi Valemei and Jordan Rapana, I expect set starts to be much stronger with Bailey at the back, rather than supporting Aekins.
Defensively will be a test. On a couple of occasions this season Simonsson has got in poor positions defensively, and it hasn’t ended well. When you’re a winger you’re often put in unenviable positions that don’t end well no matter what you do. A couple of times he’s been forced to choose between hell and high-water and consequently Bailey has a team leading 12 try-causes to his name (equal with Curtis Scott to lead the team). Impossible situations is where Charnze has historically thrived, and it’s probably not fair to expect the same from Simonsson. But his defence has improved in 2021, and he’s making a career-high 79.3% of his tackles (up from 64% in his rookie year).
But the hardest bit for Simonsson will be organisation of the defensive line, and knowing when to fill and when to fall back. The Canberra middle finds itself comically stripped of numbers at times, in need of numbers support from wherever it can get it. This has generally been the edge, we had just shifted the blame but not the cause because no one has been able to plug the holes left when the edge forwards comes inwards. Balancing the defensive line, identifying opposition strengths and home team weaknesses, and potentially filing gaps in the line.f is a necessity of the role. We don’t know if Simonsson will succeed here, but I’ll be keen to find out.
A good performance here could establish Simonsson’s spot for the rest of the year. It should also give the Raiders a better idea of the pathways for their talented youth brigade coming through. If he proves his worth it could also serve as a reminder to the club of the sheer wastefulness of its pursuit of Matt Dufty, a defensive liability who’s offensive output is all sizzle and no steak.
But most of all if Bailey performs well it could be one step to putting back together the Humpty Dumpty of the Canberra season. A better performance at the back won’t fix everything, but it’s a good start. I hope Bailey is a success.