For years Canberra has searched for a long term halfback to fill the boots of one of its greatest sons, Ricky Stuart. But since Sticky was unceremoniously forced out the door by Kevin Neil, the Raiders had never been able to find a solution at seven. Once again they find themselves in dire need of a halfback at the very worst time. That’s not because there’s not a lot of options, but the market is flush with the debris of disasters. To successfully navigate this market, they’ll need to be clear about what they have, how their roster is set up, and where the game is going.
Sidebar: The photo that leads this article came from the esteemed Canberra Raiders jersey nerd. You can and should follow them on Twitter (as I do), Facebook, and Instagram because you love the Raiders and you like to see pictures of some of god’s greatest creations.
The list of players who have tried to don the Raiders’ number seven jersey since Sticky has been long and uninspiring. Many have promised plenty. Todd Carney was the future until well, everything, got in the way. George Williams was another that flamed out for different reasons. I always thought Aidan Sezer was the solution but we chose George over him. We’ve seen plenty of serviceable solutions (McFadden, Sam Williams, Josh McCrone, Marc Herbert) and some future immortals never given a chance to shine (Michael Dobson, Mitch Cornish – I’m only half joking). But no matter how long they’ve searched, the Green Machine have never found a solution at seven that has stuck since the days that Sticky did.
Canberra is again entering this search on a hiding to nothing. The halfback market started top heavy and is now just heavy with the dreams of flawed prospects. Adam Reynolds was signed by the Broncos as if to prove that even in the bad times, the big guys always win. Shaun Johnson was surprisingly (to me) rejected, but this was probably more of a ‘I’m not fired i quit vibe’. The Shark ended up back home in New Zealand, and after him is where the questions start. The Raiders have reportedly been looking at Gareth Widdop, who’s got a long-line of injury issues, which was the same reason the Milk put a line through Ash Taylor. Kyle Flanagan, Kodi Nikorima, Luke Brooks and Mitchell Pearce all might be available, but right now they’re not technically up for offer. And that doesn’t even mention in house options like Cooma’s finest Sam Williams and the up-and-coming Brad Schneider.
So how should the Milk proceed? The Raiders don’t necessarily need a saviour – though they could certainly use one – which is lucky because the market is full of players that shouldn’t be primary options. There’s a need to be realistic about their expectations. Most of these options are as exciting as a cheese sandwich on brown bread. None of them are a game changer; they won’t change the style of the side, or it’s ceiling. They need to be comfortable with the idea that the next big half they will have won’t be this era, and adjust accordingly.
They also need to sort out what they expect to get from number 9 position next year. Their two options are very different stylistically and are best supported by different styles of halfback. Josh Hodgson is a creator, a lead ball-player than can play a big role in a dominant attack. If there’s a criticism it’s that he overplays his hand, but that criticism is only relevant if you’ve got a dominant half next to him (which makes his feted move to Brisbane confusing). Best suited next to him is a third option half, who gets the ball after Jack and Hodgo are done with it, and is a safe enough defender that Canberra can play attacking options on the edge without having to worry about their ability to cover for the halfback. Alternatively, Tom Starling right now is the kind who will shift to dominant halves, and only test the ruck after the forwards win it. At this stage he’s not a creator (though this isn’t to say that isn’t being developed). Whichever of them starts next year requires a very different bed-mate, and this should shape how the Milk approaches recruitment.
Second they need to remember their roster set up. This is a point raised by Nick (the tall one) on this episode of the Green Machine Podcast recently, and me incessantly last offseason (when times were good…sigh). The Raiders have set up their roster to on the basis that George Williams would be here over the this and next season. As players like Soliola, Croker, Hodgson, Lui, Havili, Rapana moved on, the younger brigade would come through. They would see the growth in players like emerging half Brad Schneider and Tom Starling (and a host of other emerging talent like Adrian Trevilyan, Xavier Savage, Harley Smith-Shields, Trey Mooney etc) and be able to adjust their recruitment accordingly. Schneider and Starling may be a pair for the future, or Canberra might need to get back into the market. They’ll also need to maintain cap flexibility in order to ensure that group can stay together. Regardless, come 2023, they’ll be thinking future by design, and they need to trust that the choices they’ve already made about what that future might look like is worth persevering with. That means not throwing that future chasing a hope and a prayer in the form of a longer-term contract for a flawed name.
Finally, Canberra need to consider where the game is going and remain flexible to adapt to an uncertain future. In the current game broken down middles offer halves more space to create, and consequently there’s less creativity needed. The ability of halves to test the line is rewarded. Kodi Nikorima is a great of example of a player who (at times) has thrived in the broken down defensive lines of the modern game. Players like Nikorima were once too limited to be effective halves, but in today’s game there’s enough space or time that anyone can be a offensive weapon. So looking beyond conventional ideas of halfbacks, and better understanding the skill set of the players that are out there. Mitchell Pearce and Luke Brooks for example, have more skill as running halves than they’re often given credit for.
Using these criteria to look across the landscape won’t necessarily reveal a solution. Part of the reason there feels like there’s so many options for Canberra is because there’s no clear candidate. Short term deals to any of these would suffice, and if the Milk can keep half an eye on their future while finding a way to remain competitive, it’ll be an achievement. They may never find another Stuart, but what they can do is find a solution that fits, and doesn’t sacrifice their future.