Keeping Rapana

BY DAN

Jordan Rapana was at his inspiring best driving the Raiders to a much needed victory at Parramatta last week. He is also off contract at the end of the season. While the Milk have the talent to fill that void should he leave, Rapana is still needed at the club.

In a year where the Raiders in general, and the outside backs in particular, have come under a degree of scrutiny, Rapana has been a standout. He’s been Canberra’s best in yardage work from exit sets, a critical input for success generally, but even more in Vlandoball. Rapa is leading the team in total metres (2,273 – near 300 total more than second best Ryan Sutton), averaging 157 metres of the hardest work, only eclipsed by injured hero of the people, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. He does most of his work in difficult circumstances, often taking the first yardage hit up after a kick return against a set defensive line, and finding a way to make someone not quite get enough of him to ensure extra metres, a quick ruck. It’s often built from dummy-half runs (he’s taken the second most dummy-half runs (32) on the team after Starling (36)) and sometimes, like last Thursday’s try against the Eels, it’s enough to create points for the Milk.

He’s lost a yard of pace but that hasn’t meant he’s become a passenger. Canberra’s attack in recent years has been predicated less on structured play and more on talent making plays. Some of that talent has left (Williams, Bateman, Cotric, Leilua, Sezer), but Rapana remains, still able to make things happen. 90 tackle breaks (at roughly five a game) is third best in the competition, and so far and away from the Raiders next best (42 for Corey Harawira-Naera at three a game) shows how critical he is to strengthening what is otherwise a weakness for the Milk. 14 line breaks (equal 14th in the league) are again so far away from the club’s second most (Seb Kris with 8). Ten tries lead the team, and while you’d expect that from a winger, he also has as many try assists as Tom Starling (3). The ability to spot a chance and make something out of it has always been a function of Rapa’s play and something that the Green Machine often has lacked in it’s backline this year (and why Xavier Savage was such a revelation).

Rapana has also offered an increasing degree of utility value in recent years. He’s currently filling in at fullback while Canberra deal with their never-ending injury issues at the position. He’s played on both sides of the pitch this year, and as recently as last year filled in a centre for long periods of time (and occasionally he and Seb Kris swap to get Rapa closer to the ball in attack). It’s a function of experience that he can fill in with a degree of success at two of the more difficult defensive positions in footy and hold his own.

In addition to this, his value as a leader around the club has been more important. Matt Timoko has spoken about it, and it was painstakingly clear how important he was in support of Xavier Savage. His energy and emotion is perhaps not the stuff of traditional leadership (nor is his use of the Captain’s Challenge), but nonetheless seems important to Canberra now. So often in 2021 the question has been asked whether the Raiders have played with enough effort or energy. That question is never asked about Jordan.

So the question is less whether Rapana is worthy of a squad position, but there is a questions as to whether he’s a fit for this squad. Given Canberra could well start a back five of Nicoll-Klokstad, Savage, Timoko, Smith-Shields and Valemei next year, one may wonder if it’s worth the money to keep Rapa around. At 31 he’s not getting quicker, and at some point his body won’t be able to repel defenders in the way it does now. Putting too much cap space into a position that you already have so many options comes with a substantial opportunity cost.

Of course what matters here is the quantum of that cost, and there’s little to suggest that Rapana would be on big money. A short deal at team friendly money seems a likely outcome for his skill-set. Rapana’s proven he is still one of the team’s best routinely, and his utility value means that he can fill gaps around Canberra’s developing talent without necessarily standing in its way. The benefits of having a known quantity and depth across the backline is important. And given the transition of leadership occurring as players like Sia Soliola retire, Dunamis Lui and Ryan James (potentially) leave, and the ongoing uncertainty around the futures of Jarrod Croker, Josh Hodgson and Curtis Scott, there’s a changing guard, and with Elliott Whitehead, Rapana could provide important continuity.

The good news is that Rapana has been identified (with Harley Smith-Shields) as a priority for extension by the club (per this piece from the Canberra Times). Again, as the impending extension to Elliott Whitehead has shown, it reveals the club has a sound handle on the two track roster they are managing at the moment. The need to keep ushering through new talent, while providing a buffer against the ups and downs that come with the vagaries of youth. I suspect Rapana will be the last deal finalised when all the moving and/or shaking is done, simply because, like Sam Williams, how much he’s paid will be determined more by how much is left than any discussion about his worth. Rapa wants to stay in Canberra, they want him to stay.

Rapana is entering “Daddy Raider” territory, which is crazy to consider how he made the side in 2013 on a hope and a prayer (or because of the latter took him away from the Gold Coast and left him in Canberra cutting hair). He was initially overlooked for Raiders alumni like Reece Robinson, Bill Tupou, Edrick Lee, Sami Sauiluma, Matthew Allwood, and BRENKO. It took Anthony Milford moving from fullback to the halves for him to get a shot. Now he’s established himself alongside Chicka Ferguson, Noa Nadruku and Kenny Nagas as one the greatest wingers the Raiders have ever had, and he’s still got another deal coming and more time to extend his legacy.

Sometimes as people, and a fanbase, we’ve got a tendency to move on in the excitement of the next new thing (or things, as is the case for the Raiders). But Rapana has achieved a lot, and he’s still competing at an elite level. We saw as much last week. The Raiders would be smart to extend his time in Canberra.

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