Despite the bluster of recent days, I suspect Matt Dufty is coming to Canberra.
Now, of course this isn’t confirmed, or even signed as far as we know. But take the following as evidence of the fact.Firstly Sticky went on the record expressing his interest. This isn’t something he does lightly. In fact, in the only occasion I can remember him doing it in recent times was before Curtis Scott signed. Stuart only makes his overtures public when he thinks he’s in with a shot. While the Raiders are reportedly ‘watching his form’, this feels more like an attempt to push down his price than drive him away. Dufty simply has nowhere else to go. He’s been sent a burn notice from his current club. The Broncos have pulled their interest. So have the Warriors. No one else wants him. To quote a monster, there is no alternative.
When this came to light in recent weeks, we wrote that the main weaknesses of Dufty’s game were defence and yardage, which, coincidently, are two things that the Raiders have struggled with this year (a better performance against the terrible Broncos notwithstanding). Defence has been an issue for Dufty since he cracked first grade. He’s missed 13 tackles this season, and his current tackle efficiency percentage puts him firmly behind the elite fullbacks of the competition. He also has 12 try causes for the season, which by count puts him 5th worst in the competition among regular fullbacks, and while if you read this pages often you’ll know I’m loathe to rely on them in isolation, they become interesting when they’re part of the same picture.
Statistics are one thing, but when you match them with the eye test you get an idea what the Dragons sources were on about when they leaked their complaints with Dufty to Michael Chammas of The Sydney Morning Herald (which was supremely uncool in my book). In this rounds’ debacle of a loss he had three of the poorest efforts you will see from a fullback. First there was getting turned inside out by Jake Averillo. Then he failed to tackle anyone when performing the regular responsibility of fullbacks defending at the ‘A’ position on the goal line.
He finally got some contact on an attacker on the goal line later in the game, only to be overpowered by a player with no momentum.
It’s fair to wonder if this poor performance came about because of the seemingly unfair hit job the Sydney Morning Herald printed about him recently. With that behaviour, his recent ousting from the Dragons, and their unwillingness to let him leave the club this season, many would fairly suggest that his mind wasn’t in it. One bad day doesn’t make a career. That’s fair, but that ignores that even on good day his defence is a weakness. The thing about these defensive efforts wasn’t so much that they all came in the same game, but more that they fit every concern any long-time Dufty watcher has about his defence. These specific issues have been brought up routinely with Dufty before. They are not one offs.
Dufty adds to this limited yardage work. The efforts of the back three are so important in today’s game, and as important if not moreso than the more vaunted idea of his straight line pace. The Panthers exit sets and middle dominance are predicated on Brian To’o and Dylan Edwards hitting the line hard, using agility to get in between defenders, and power to break arm tackles. 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. It also allows forwards to get a desperately needed break, one no longer afforded by the stoppages that used to naturally occur in a game.
Of course none of this is new, but whereas yardage work in exit sets was once a chore, the fatigue of the game brought upon by Vlandoball makes them more of a weapon. The least yardage a Raiders fullback has had in a win this season is 144 metres (Charnze v the Sharks) and was combined with near 50 post-contact metres. Dufty averages 143.8. Dufty simply doesn’t have the body for yardage. In his recent man-of-the-match performance against the Broncos he had 132m and 20 post contact, following it up with 126 and 26 in the loss to the Bulldogs. Dufty averages just 28 metres post contact this season. Raiders fullbacks have averaged 65 plus in wins this year. In four full games this year, Charnze averaged just under 70 post contact metres (nice). It’s fair to say however the game is going for Dufty, yardage is not a strength, and it’s a desperate need for Canberra.
Most will rightly look at Dufty as young, with a set of elite attacking skills (and that he is, as you can see from the Rugby League Eye Test’s breakdown of the polar opposites of his and Charnze’s games) and the potential for development of defence. This is a fair position to take. In my view Dufty’s defence is probably better this year than it has been in past years, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that he would continue to grow into something approaching an adequate defender. In making this argument though it’s important to note that the same courtesy could be extended to Charnze, a player of the same age, already on the Raiders’ roster and a very team friendly deal, who has had half the time in the top grade to develop an elite passing game. Assuming that the Canberra coaches can teach Dufty defence assumes that the Raiders defensive revival was based on coaching and not personnel (specifically, John Bateman and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad) and fitness, when the truth is some mixture – and we’ve learned that repeatedly in 2020. It also negates the fact that those same coaches can teach Charnze to pass. That seems as likely.
The ramifications of this decision like this are murky at the moment. For starters we have to wonder what it means for Nicoll-Klokstad. Stuart has already mooted a positional change for Charnze, something he’s done before. This is an odd risk – moving an elite player from their best position to incorporate another risk is something you see more in the
blogs of random idiots thoughts of fans than from coaching staff. It’s hard to not wonder if there’s more to this than we realise. It’s entirely possible Nicoll-Klokstad’s neck injury is much worse than we realise. He did try to heal without surgery, and only pursued the knife when that failed. It’s not ridiculous that Canberra recognise the risk is substantial that he never returns to his best. After all, they might argue they saw exactly that with BJ Leilua. Given Nicoll-Klokstad is so reliant on throwing his body into his work, there’s no telling what he’ll be able to produce next season, and one assessment is that the Raiders are just making backup plans. It’s also possible that Charnze has given the club some sort of indication that he’s on his way back to New Zealand to be with his family. Given he’s got two years on his contract after this year, it would surprise me if this is a conversation he’s had with the club right now, particularly given that he’d in all likelihood prefer to re-establish his reputation on the field before signing a contract with another team.
If Charnze hasn’t told the club that, and is healthy next year, I wouldn’t expect him to stick around. Shifting Charnze to centre will have profound impacts for his career, specifically his earning capacity. For starters it shifts him to a new role and new responsibilities, one with unclear suitability. Charnze has an elite motor and an incredible ability to read the play at the back. Centres don’t get as many carries as other backs, and their defensive reads, are of a different nature while equally difficult. There’s no simply no guarantee that he’ll perform at the same level. Moreover, he’s moving to a position that simply is paid less than his current. There’s a reason every monkey and their dog wants to play fullback, and it’s only partially to do with getting their hands on the ball a lot. It’s all about the
Benjamins Dame Nellie Melbas baby. As we’ve stated, his family is currently in New Zealand, and if he’s going to be playing out of position, I suspect he’d prefer to do it closer to his family.
Another factor that needs to be taken into account is the talent depth in the roster, depth that Dufty’s signing, and Nicoll-Klokstad’s positional shift would become an obstacle to. Next season Matt Timoko and Harley Smith-Shields should be playing regular first grade football. Xavier Savage might be close too (as his naming as 18th man for this weekend would suggest). Bailey Simonsson, Semi Valemei, Seb Kris and perhaps Jordan Rapana, Jarrod Croker and Curtis Scott are all in the mix. You’re now fitting all those players into three positions of the back five. There’s not much opportunity, and while you might think the talent will rise to the top, given Savage, Smith-Shields and Kris are all up for contract discussions, it just might as easily lead them to search for playing time security and opportunity elsewhere, particularly with the Broncos cashed up and looking for talent.
The short order is even on the minimum this is an inefficient use of money. Canberra has a fullback. They have a backup fullback. They have upcoming talent that will play fullback. Even a small amount of money spent here can mean money not spent elsewhere. After all, 50k was the difference between keeping Nic Cotric and not. Some amount similar was the difference between keeping John Bateman and not. In a salary cap league it’s a risk to spend money where you already have equal solutions.
This is not to say it can’t work. Dufty is an electric talent, and if he starts next year he’ll be a joy to watch with ball in hand, much like Blake Austin was. And if the club can get around him, and find a way to improve his defence to adequate, he’ll be a star in this league. The Milk would be doing their best roster work, snatching a damaged and distressed asset, and turning it into a weapon. There’s undoubtedly so much going on behind closed doors with this that any certainty, about Dufty’s signature, about the Raiders motives, and about Nicoll-Klokstad’s health and intentions (like you’ve just read) will only be proven foolish in the fulness of time. We’ll know more come Monday.
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