Bailey Simonsson was such a star in Canberra’s victory over the weekend it’s confusing as to why it took so long to try him at fullback.
Simonsson hasn’t been shy about his desire to play the spot. When he joined the side before the 2019 season, it was clear he and Charnze Nicoll—Klokstad would be vying for Jack Wighton’s recently vacated fullback jersey. Before the 2020 season the claim he wanted to play at the back was a key part of a feature he did with Fatima Kdouh. He has apparently reiterated his desire to Sticky on a few occasions.
When Nicoll-Klokstad went down injured it seemed logical that Caleb Aekins would be given first shot. After all he’d been brought in specifically to be Charnze’s back-up, also spurning the first rumours of the idiotic idea to shift Nicoll-Klokstad to centre which now seems closer to reality. Aekins had joined from the Panthers juggernaut, and was to provide assured back up. Unfortunately that didn’t quite work out. The Raiders needed yardage and solid defence. They didn’t get it.
We’d advocated for Bailey at fullback for some time in these pages. We’re hardly the only ones. The esteemed M1 of the Green Machine Podcast built and drives the Simonsson bandwagon. For me it was his agile feet, athleticism, and the idea that his time playing elite rugby sevens would have meant he’d have bit of ball play. We got to see this is friendly circumstances on the weekend. Bailey looked immediately comfortable at the back.
His ball play stood out. His willingness to take the ball deep into the line, remain patient waiting for opportunities to present themselves and still be able to take advantage of what was presented was notable. He had two try assists, and on both occasions he either passed at the line or behind it. On other occasions he tucked and ran, and on multiple occasions was only stopped from scoring by desperate defence. It was a big change from the approach we’d seen from Aekins recently, or from Nicoll-Klokstad more generally.
Bailey was good in other areas. His yardage work was exemplary, and it was so pleasing to see Canberra utilise a big back three to tear through the opening tackles of the hard sets coming off their own line. It seemed to make a massive difference to the forwards’ energy levels. At points of his career before now Bailey may not have been able to produce such a dominant running display, but he proved not just agile but powerful.
It’s a critical mix; and one much more important in Vlandoball that the more vaunted idea of straight line pace. New South Wales didn’t dominate Queensland because Josh Addo-Carr is fast. They dominated because Tedesco, To’o and Trbojevic tore the heart out of the centre of the Maroon defence by being the right mix of nimble and powerful to make it impossible to get a clean shot and control a ruck. Simonsson, alongside Rapana and Valemei were able to get in between defenders, and with the referee willing to use the set restart (mostly in the first half) it meant Canberra were able to win the middle in a way they hadn’t since Nicoll-Klokstad was injured. If there was one part of the game I hope he brings every week it’s this.
It’s hard to know if Simonsson’s defence was up to scratch simply because it wasn’t really tested. He was slightly out of position and too slow off the mark for Tesi Niu’s solo effort. It’s a mistake that all learning fullbacks will make, and one I suspect Bailey won’t make in the future. He (and also Semi and Rapa) let a few bombs bounce that probably shouldn’t have. Apart from that Simonsson always seemed in the right place at right time with the correct attitude, but there weren’t many moments to test that.
Indeed it’s hard to tell how much to take away simply because Canberra’s middle was so dominant. Of course Simonsson was instrumental in that, but it had such a profound effect on the other areas of his game. He was rarely tested in defence because the Broncos barely spent 3 sets in the Green Machine’s half. He had so much time to test and probe with the ball in hand because the middle had opened up a gaping hole that the Broncos defence wasn’t up to fixing with line speed or effort. He could wander up and to the line through acres of space and take all the time in the world to assess and react.
There simply won’t be an easier night of it. That’s not to say Simonsson wasn’t a revelation, because he was tremendous and deserves every chance to make the custodian position his going forward. But bigger challenges await. Over the next few weeks we’ll get a better idea of where Simonsson is as a longer term solution at the back.
It does beg the question though, why did it take so long to try him?