Word emerged (from Brent Read at the Australian) over the weekend that Elliott Whitehead would be extending his time in Canberra.
This is fitting reward for a player that has been the cornerstone of the Stuart-era Raiders. It’s not every player than can be one club person, but I’m glad Whitehead could well be that. He’s criminally underrated by the rugby league community outside Canberra (and sometimes within). They see the lack of yards or barnstorming runs as evidence of insufficiency. But this obscures the unique talents that Whitehead brings and their importance to the Milk’s comparative advantage.
Whitehead is reportedly being offered two years on top of his current deal, putting him with the club to end 2024. This would basically take him to the end of his career (in Australia at least). The length of this deal, coming a full year before the expiry of his current deal, surprised me. One might be concerned that we could see another repeat of the Jarrod Croker situation, whereby we have a senior player who’s body isn’t necessarily keeping up with the changing game. These concerns are mitigated by the positives that Whitehead offers the Raiders going forward, and the financial risk required to keep him.
Whitehead still is critical to the Raiders’ success. He takes the unheralded carries, hitting his belly to ensure a quick ruck to ensure metres and momentum on the next tackle, rather than getting stuck in a wrestle. He’s still a crucial part of Canberra’s left side attack, and is equal second in try assists (5) for active Raiders. We noted during 2020 that structured attack working off Whitehead and Jack was Canberra’s most reliable attacking movement, and nothing that has happened in 2021 would suggest otherwise. Defensively he’s third in tackles for the club, and while he has plenty of misses this year, this is a function of the impossible positions that the Milk have put their edges in this year, and Elliott’s willingness to put himself in difficult positions for the benefit of his side rather than his stats. His tackle efficiency (90.5%) is broadly the same as Hudson Young (90.8%) and Corey Harawira-Naera (91.2%). In a season where he’s had to cover inside and out, he’s still managed to be a remarkably effective defender. His motor is unquestionable, and that is a rare talent in itself. Too often we lionize talent or pace and forget that the ability to keep powering forward isn’t something that all players share equally.
There is a claim that Whitehead is no longer effective as a Vlandoball backrower. This claim relies on the idea that the pace is at a premium, and that Smelly doesn’t have it. I agree that he’s not quick, and that the current style does encourage people with pace or power, but I don’t think that’s the only way to succeed. His game is predicated on intelligent ball play. He’s creative, but he also makes smart decisions and works well in concert with whoever is around him. He consistently puts pressure on defenders not because he’s powerful, or quick, but because he almost always makes the right decision. Indeed, with more space in which to operate, it just gives him more opportunities to do what he does best, forming an almost dual-five-eighth machine with Jack Wighton on the left side, allowing Jack to focus on running and while Smelly creates.
The demand for this ball play hasn’t dissipated under Vlandoball. As defences collapse around the ruck, the opportunities afforded to edge players to create are easier to take advantage of. It’s shifted where it occurs from only a redzone function to one used to shift the defence from side to side across the park. The Raiders benefitted in their recent victory over Cronulla because Corey Harawira-Naera was able to so effectively hit the line and offload at all levels of the field. Prior to that game Whitehead was second in the club in offloads (behind only Josh Papalii), and combined with his ability to ball play before the line, it offers a variety and adaptability in offensive styles that Canberra, and most clubs, simply cannot find easily elsewhere. Furthermore, these skills don’t disappear with one’s athleticism.
He’s adaptability and likely longevity is reinforced by his utility value. Smelly has played multiple positions for the Raiders in 2021, including centre, half, and second row. He hasn’t had to play in the middle, but he could, happily performing a role similar to that carried forth by Isaac Yeo at Penrith. Smelly is a football player first, athlete second, and while there’s still demand for footy players on the field, he’ll have a use. This adaptability and utility will see him of use even as the young guns come through. Corey Harawira-Naera, Hudson Young, Harry Rushton, and others, are the future of the Milk back row. The beauty of his flexibility and adaptability is that he can continue to play a role without impeding the development of these players. As soon as they’re good enough, Smelly will just fill another need.
The length of this deal indicate that Elliott has also been identified to play an important role mentoring the squad over the coming years. The time on Sia Soliola, Josh Hodgson, Jarrod Croker are coming to an end, and the Milk are looking for experienced players to help them transition to a younger squad. As we’ve noted before in these pages, club culture needs leaders to exemplify and replicate. The Raiders are clearly intending for Whitehead, (alongside Sam Williams to a lesser extent – he signed another 1 year extension, his 36th in a row with the club), to be the cultural core of the club over the next three years as stars transition into elder statemen, and youth become stars. It’s an astute choice. There’s not a player in the squad who’s willingness to do the dirty work, to put their body on the line game in and game out, and the model the right kind of behaviour, both on and off the field, could be more admired. It’s another example of Peter Mulholland’s excellent foresight in roster management, not just for talent but also for culture.
Financially, it’s worth wondering what the total quantum of the deal is. I doubt it’s at his current level – reportedly 582k a year according to the Daily Telegraph. I suspect it’s something more team friendly, given how early the deal is being put together. But without that knowledge it’s hard to know what the impact will be. Much like the back end of Jarrod Croker’s deal, the financial impact will be ameliorated by it potentially taking a chunk of the Veteran and Developed Player Allowance, of which Whitehead will be eligible for throughout this extension (particularly if other eligible players like Croker have moved on).
It’s not a signing that changes the side or its fortunes, but it does maintain a quality player that has continually given his all to this club. It’s also recognition of the unique talents and efforts that Whitehead has given, and can continue to give going forward. His game can adapt to the future, while he plays an important role in shaping the culture of Raiders HQ and pathing a path for the next generation to follow. There’ll be time in the future to consider Whitehead’s outsized contribution to Canberra in its entirety, but for now we should be glad he’s sticking around.