In recent weeks the Canberra Raiders have found a much better balance in their lineup, spreading minutes among the forwards much more evenly. This has contributed (with a range of other factors) to the better performance of Canberra’s middle forwards. But if the Milk think they are going to make a run in the second half of the season, there’s one aspect of their roster Canberra have yet to find a balance for – the use of Tom Starling.
Since Josh Hodgson has returned to the starting lineup, Starling’s minutes have been fairly limited. He played 17 against the Roosters, 15 against the Broncos, and 9 against the Dragons. This is largely because Hodgson has been Canberra’s best source of attack over that period, has nailed three try assists, a try contribution and a try himself in that period, and generally has looked the very good player he is. Starling has replaced Hodgson because he hasn’t needed replacing. But for a team that’s struggled so much this season with their second half performance, leaving one player on the bench for nearly the entire game is a needless restriction and a waste of minutes.
The simplest solution is carrying a different player on the bench; either another forward or a utility back. This could be used to give players like Harry Rushton, Xavier Savage, Harley Smith-Shields or Elijah Anderson more exposure to first grade in relatively secure ways. It could also mean the Raiders are set up to handle the seeming inevitable loss of back to injury or HIA that has occurred nine of their nine losses this year (numbers approximate) without having to resort to playing Elliott Whitehead out of position. This makes sense, and would maximise the Raiders performance within walls their current approach for 2021, with a bit of a view forward too.
Update: Shouts to readers Kathy and Jamie who both reminded me that Siliva Havili exists and is a goddamn legend. He obviously would be an easy fit at 17th man, covering a middle rotation and allowing Hodgson to shift wider if the Raiders wanted to try that.
The obvious problem here is the the signal this sends to the player the Raiders have seemingly nominated to fill Hodgson’s shoes when(ever) he departs. It also means less opportunities to develop, less time to build partnerships with the players that will be in Canberra for the long-term. In a side without Hodgson and in all likelihood without an elite half next year, Starling will be asked to do more creation than he’s done at any time before now, and little time to prepare for it if he’s sitting on the bench this year. This seems like a decision that could only be reached if the assumption was that Hodgson was not only seeing out his contract, but extending his time in Canberra. If you’ve read us here, you can see we don’t see that as very likely.
Another solution would be to play more tandem time with Hodgson and Starling. As we’ve seen during its limited use this year, it adds another dimension to the attack, putting an extra ball player a pass wide (usually on the right). This has returned a bit of shape to the attack on that side. When he’s shifted out a position, Hodgson has proven willing to engage the defence (at least more than the other halves have recently), and it’s created a bit more momentum and space in right side shifts, allowing ball play closer to the line and forcing defenders into tougher decisions.
This isn’t an ‘all the time’ approach. Having Starling, Williams and Hodgson across the park makes the lives of opposition ball-runners too easy. Teams already focus intently on Williams and Hodgson throughout the game (which, by the way, makes Matt Timoko’s relatively stable start defensively all the more impressive). Adding an extra option to attack is a risk that can be managed but the timing has to be right. The periods at the back end of halves, as players tire and the game becomes rattier, seems like a good time to utilise this small-ball. You could even match it a rotation of mobile forwards (think Tapine, Young and maybe young Harry Rushton in the middle), and you’re really starting to play some aggressive, mobile, pace-and-space footy.
An addition to this pace-and-space that might reduce the defensive risk that the Raiders appear to be concerned with would be a change at halfback. Brad Schneider may be young, but he’s already a bigger body than Sam Williams and defensively, and is currently hitting 91 per cent tackle efficiency in New South Wales cup football (in comparison, Sam is 83 per cent in NRL and 89 per cent in NSW cup). Having Hodgson alongside him, at either 9 or as an extra ball-player would also take the pressure of Schneider to create, and allow him to pick and choose his moments rather than have to drive the team around the park. Most of all, it would give him time to adjust to NRL level, and potentially give him more of a chance to be the full-time solution next year.
It’s not clear that playing with more width and shape actually results in more points to Canberra. The extra creator resulted in points against the Bulldogs, and a try against the Titans (from a crash ball), but had little effect in outcome against the Dragons. This tiny sample size means two-fifths of well, you know, but it’s worth considering that simply pushing the ball wider isn’t a guarantee of anything. Still, a bit more variety in how Canberra approaches their attack couldn’t hurt at this point.
Ultimately how much such a small ball unit was deployed would be a matter for game circumstance. Do the middles need defensive support or do the Raiders need to try more things? Against the Dragons it was utilised once the Raiders fell behind, which was basically the moment when Stuart’s half time message of defending their way to victory (as reported on Fox) became pointless. I’d love to see it used aggressively though – depending on how you manage the other middle forward minutes you could slot Starling into a rotation around the 30th minute, push to half-time, and return to it later in the game if needed.
There’s a balancing job here. With this season not working out how Canberra wanted there’s a challenge of pulling in multiple directions. Managing new faces, experience for next year, and what works best right now are all part of the focus for teams who fall out of the finals race. Right now the Milk can still put together a run over the back end of the season, but they need to make sure they properly utilise all 17 position on their roster each week to make sure that happens.