Young Talent Time?

BY DAN

The second half of the NRL season is looking like a dark time for the people’s rugby league football team, your humble Canberra Raiders. They’ve gone from contenders to mediocrity personified to basket case so quickly it’s felt more like the dead-cat bounce of a financial crash than a football season. After crashing out in spectacular fashion last weekend, questions are being asked about bringing the Raiders youth stocks into first grade.

It seems logical now that the Raiders need to look beyond their current chargers and towards the future. 2021 is no longer a championship year, there’s plenty of change to their roster and the game, and so Canberra needs to look at the next phase of contendership, what their side needs to look like and how to manage that transition. The case for change is clear. Even Sticky got in on the discussion, saying he needs to find some energy and “the only way I am going to find energy is with new faces.”

Sidebar: On this recent episode of The Green Machine Podcast, your boy had a moment to discuss some key issues with some of the finest minds in the Canberra rugby league commentariat. One of those issues was how the Raiders should be managing their young chargers coming into the back end of the season, and what that might mean for next year and beyond. At the time we wondered whether this could be managed while still competing. It feels so naïve now.

Making vast changes is a natural reaction to catastrophe, and given the effort that has been going into locking down young talent recently, more game time for his young chargers is clearly on Stuart’s mind. What’s more complicated is managing that change in a safe and productive way. Youth movements should not be a holus-bolus change. Players still need direction, roles and support to succeed. They need to learn from players who show them the right way to prepare, the right way to play and how to succeed. Some players may develop these habits on their own; for most though they are learned. Putting a bunch of young players together and throwing away the expectation of success can lead to bad habits and expectations of losing.

Substantive change is also a big challenge in a short week. The Raiders are rebuilding a crashing aeroplane as it’s hurtling to the ground. It’s big to ask any players to forge a new combination in one training session and a captain’s run, let alone those just starting out against a well drilled side like Manly.

They may have preferred to delay substantive change until the nine day break after the Manly game, but their performance and circumstance mean Canberra can’t really avoid it. Change will be forced in the halves and to the middle forwards by Origin. It’s likely there will be a backs reshuffle caused by Simonsson’s injury. The side is being pushed towards change, whether they’re ready or not.

The most obvious change is to bring back Matt Timoko. Most were surprised when he wasn’t given a third opportunity in a row on the weekend. In two starts he’s averaged just under 100 metres a game on less than 10 carries. He’s averaged 3 tackle breaks, which puts him behind only Jordan Rapana across the first grade squad. He’s added to that a line-break, line-break assist, and a try assist, all while providing bollocking runs line and relatively sturdy defence (52 tackles and 4 missed tackles across the two games) despite covering for the smaller Sam Williams. He’s admitted he’s benefited from honing his craft with experienced players around him.

There are other clear opportunities. Hudson Young is a logical replacement for Josh Papalii’s trip to Origin. But I also wonder if he may be joined by the prodigious talents of Harry Rushton. Rushton has been moved to the middle in the last four rounds of NSW Cup, in which he’s been averaging 103 metres, 44 post contact metres, 1.5 tackle breaks, 32 tackles and 1 miss across 50 odd minutes a game. Harry’s youth, strength and agility would be well worth testing at the top level, and limited minutes in a middle rotation it would provide plenty of upside with little risk. Putting him in a rotation with experienced players like Sia Soliola, and/or Dunamis Lui would be ideal, but it may be at the expense of one of those two.

Timoko, Young and Rushton are a low-risk start of a youth movement; an easy transition of the roster. But while they may be next in line, the roster challenge caused by Bailey Simonsson’s injury, and Jack Wighton’s Origin absence, will require other solutions. Given the challenge of the short week, I would assume the move would be to either bring back Caleb Aekins or shift Jordan Rapana to fullback. The latter would open up an opportunity on the right wing.

Harley Smith-Shields is naturally a left centre but can play a range of positions in the back five. He’s a powerful and agile runner, able to take advantage of one-on-one against almost any defender. He’s has only probably only missed a shot at first grade this season because of a raptured bicep. Using him makes sense, but there’s no certainty he has the match fitness right now given he’s only just returned to NSW Cup footy in time for it to go on Covid enforced hiatus. His best position going forward may well be at left centre. His arrival there would require Jarrod Croker’s departure. Regardless of whether or not you think Croker is doing enough to keep his spot is immaterial. This is a big button to press. Right wing might be an opportunity to get him game time without major change.

Another option is to bring in Xavier Savage. The Raiders have already got to see the miracle mirage of Savage briefly in first grade. I’ve made the case here about saving him for later in the year, if not next year. The primary reason for this is simply to give him time to bring his defensive decision making up to the pace for professional football. He’s an electric talent, but he’s made some errors in defence since joining cup (including two try-causes against the Bears), missing 10 tackles in only making 23. I’d be much more comfortable with him on the wing if the Raiders centres were making clear and smart defensive decisions, and could support him to do likewise, but, well, you watch the games. Regardless, he won’t disappoint if given the opportunity, and wing feels like his best position. It makes sense to get him game time in the place he’ll grow to dominate over the next decade.

Brad Schneider is also worth considering over the longer term. He’ll likely get a shot anyway after Jack Wighton is shipped off for Origin. In the immediate term I’d be interested as to whether he comes in on the right, and what that means for Stuart’s willingness to recall Timoko given that would mean the entire right side defence would be new (save Harawira-Naera). It’s hardly ideal. But well, here we are. Over the longer term he would sit happily there, playing third fiddle to Hodgson and Wighton in attack, and be a more stable defensive option than is currently there. He’s not the game manager that Sam Williams is, but when you’re down 40 there’s not much to manage.

Let’s face it, the Raiders need changes. What has happened in the last few months, and particularly last weekend proves that whatever hope was held for 2021 has evaporated. There’s little to do but look to the future. But with a team that is currently operating sub-optimally, there should be a keen need to avoid destroying the confidence of young players and teaching and reinforcing bad habits. They need to be supported, in the form of a clear role and experienced players around them to make sure they have all the help they need to execute that role.

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