The Gap Filler

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders confirmed what we all already knew today, announcing that Elliott Whitehead would be with the club until the end of 2024. For all intents and purposes it seems Whitehead will join Josh Papalii as recent ‘one-club’ Raiders (at least for NRL purposes). It’s fitting recognition of a player whose importance to the Milk is as understated as the man’s play.

We’ve discussed the case for Whitehead’s deal here before and you can read that detailed breakdown of everything if you want. But the key thrust of what makes Smelly so special to Canberra is that he is the epitome of a glue-guy. He does all the hard work, fills all the gaps, and makes everyone’s life easier.

He does this with his play. As stated above he provides an extra pair of creative hands that allow Jack Wighton to play his natural game. The Raiders structured attack hasn’t looked pretty recently, but it’s most functional view has always been on the left hand side, between Jack and Smell, as we noted last year. He does this taking hard carries in difficult situations, hitting his belly quick to sacrifice his own numbers for the sake of the set’s momentum and his teammates metres. Defensively he spends so much time covering in and covering out that sometimes one forgets which side of Jack Wighton he’s meant to be standing. He’s like the Horace Grant of rugby league, constantly cleaning up other people’s mistakes, covering in and out. Like his attacking approach it’s one that doesn’t lead to good statistics, but it’s one that leads to victories when it’s more than just him approaching footy that way. And he does this with his utility. He’s played centre, halfback, middle forward and five-eighth during his time in Canberra, essentially giving Coach Stuart whatever he needs whenever he needs it. He’s sacrificing his own comfort, his own certainty, for the good of the team.

It’s not just on the field that he does this. When everything fell apart of the field earlier this year it was Elliott that stepped into the leadership breach. In typically understated fashion he stood up during the toughest of time, chin up and heart full. And just as quietly, when Jarrod Croker returned and the ship entered calmer waters, he stepped back into his old role, happy that he’d done his bit and that someone else would take the rudder.

This is part of the reason you should not worry about the length of this deal. Most will note that this deal extends to the end of the 2024 season, and that Elliott is not a spring chicken. But so much of what makes Elliott great will remain that way for that period. His creativity won’t disappear, nor will his ability to read the play as well as any half. His attitude and aptitude in defence is unlikely to become an issue as it’s never been driven by being an athletic marvel, but rather matching an intelligent understanding of the game with the best motor at the club. His utility value, as well as his good hands mean that if Hudson Young (or Harry Rushton) were to establish themselves as a star second-rower, Whitehead would in all likelihood be happy to transition to the middle, and become a ball-playing link across the middle, ala Isaiah Yeoh or an old-school ball playing lock.

Smelly will retain value to the club throughout the life off the deal off the field as well. As we’ve said before there’s a transition going on in Canberra. Sia Soliola, Dunamis Lui and Ryan James are potentially all leaving this offseason. Josh Hodgson and Jarrod Croker’s respective futures aren’t exactly clear (though, I must admit, they seem less tenuous every week). The Green Machine need to establish players that can form the leadership group that teaches the next generation of Milkmen what it means to wear the lime green. Elliott can again step up into the vacuum. It’s a role that he can continue well beyond playing big minutes (just ask Sia Soliola). It is also more evidence that Canberra have a good handle on managing their roster and are looking beyond the present to ensure the Raiders can be competitive over the longer-term.

Elliott has already given Canberra so much over his six year career at the club. He’s been the glue that’s held the team together, as well as the light held tight when the night is darkest. It’s a smart football decision to keep him and the club, and fitting recognition of his importance. I’m glad he’ll be a Raider for life.

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