Taylor-ed Solution?

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders have apparently made an offer to Ash Taylor to bring him to the people’s team. According to Brent Read of the Australian, the Raiders have offered Taylor something in the vicinity of $250,000 for next season. There’s no word on whether he’ll join, but it may the best the Milk can make of a bad situation.

The Raiders have theoretically been on the lookout since George Williams left the side earlier this season. The search has so far proven fruitless, with forays into Gareth Widdop and Luke Brooks territory leaving them with empty hands. This has presented a problem because as has become clear Sam Williams is a better backup than starter. His best attributes revolve around game management but his size and athletic restrictions mean that he becomes more of a defensive liability than the Milk can cover for. In addition, while he is one of the smarter players in the NRL, this doesn’t cover up for his inability to match his intelligence to tangible creativity. Moments like last week’s 40/20, or his exceptional short kicking (and bulk tries) against the Sea-Eagles, are too few and far between to mask the fact he offers little threat to elite defensive lines.

Starting 2022 with Williams at half back would be undercutting the Raiders potential. Brad Schneider, for reasons the club hasn’t let us in on, is apparently not ready for first grade. And despite being a fan favourite, Matt Frawley presents many of the same issues that have plagued Sam Williams; a lack of athleticism, creativity, and impact beyond a well-worked short kicking game. Josh Hodgson is an option at seven but it’s hard to tell how he’d manage the defensive agility required that wide of the ruck. In short, the Raiders have nothing but nearlys and not quites.

Ash Taylor would be a neat solution to this problem. At the reported price offered he represents almost zero financial risk to the club, at least in the short term. $250k is well below the average NRL wage – the Raiders are probably spending more money on players not expected to make a first choice 17. It gives them the chance to look at Taylor, and if he offers more, they would be likely front and centre to extend his time in Canberra. They’ve taken such an approach with distressed assets like Albert Hopoate before, and this is just a higher profile extension of this. If the club feels Schneider needs more time to develop, or if there’s another junior in the pathways identified for development, Taylor would also be an effective bridge to this, without requiring outlay that could risk other parts of the squad (such as the in-negotiation extensions for Harley Smith-Shields, Jordan Rapana, Ryan Sutton and Tom Starling).

Taylor is also a good fit with the playing styles of the existing squad. He’s a capable creator, and has proven able to operate on both sides of the ruck. He’s got a quality kicking game, particularly close to the goal-line, something the Raiders have rarely managed in recent times, and a much more substantial long kicking game than either Williams that has played for Canberra this year. He’s not quick, but his bustling running style is faster and more agile than most realise. This season he’s happily played a more supportive role to other halves at the Titans, suggesting he’d be a good complement to Jack Wighton, as well as Josh Hodgson (should he be at the club next year). Further, he’d be able to offer more creativity to support Tom Starling’s running game. Defensively he’s hardly a bruiser, but he’s not the bulls-eye most backrowers see when Sam Williams is in the line.

This is not to say he’d be a flawless solution. The Raiders reportedly put a line through him earlier in their search due to issues relating to injury. I never thought it was as bad as it was portrayed. He’s missed his fair share of games, but with Sam Williams on the roster it provided backup in case of emergency. He’s hardly been a world-breaker, and for all his talent he’s never found a way to fulfil it. He’s had a tendency to coast through games, and when his confidence is low it can permeate everything he does. He’s been deemed behind replacement level halfbacks on several other occasions by the Titans, who can use whatever talent they can grab in the halves. But the Raiders are hardly operating at the prestige end of the market. They’re one of many clubs looking into a limited talent pool.

There’s little in Stuarts’ past coaching experience with halfbacks that unabashedly proves he’ll find the best of Ash. Sticky has butted heads with almost every halfback he’s coached, from Finch, to Kimmorley, to Sezer and Williams. I guess that’s what happens when you were one of the best to ever do it – too often you expect your players to see the game the same way, not realising that sight was part of what made you a legend. For Taylor his talent carried him so far, perhaps he never had to think too hard about what made him such a mesmerizing talent, and why that hasn’t translated into more consistent play at the top level. Both he and Stuart could be at the points of their careers where the mix of talent, humbleness and intent to get better are well matched.

It’s smart from the club, which is what makes me so sad it’s unlikely to happen. As noted by Read on Triple M

I think there is a few clubs that are watching the Ash Taylor situation and working out whether they make a play for him or not, particularly if you get him at $250,000 he is a pretty good buy Ash Taylor, especially if he keeps playing the way he is.

Read to Triple M

If a market does emerge for Taylor, which seems likely, 250k is no longer going to get a deal done. What’s more, for Taylor is other teams come knocking, particularly somewhere closer to home, it feels like the Raiders would fall down the pecking order of preferable spots for Ash. If they need to pay more, then the risk becomes greater and the benefits for the Milk become less. It’s also hard not to think that this has been released to Read by Taylor’s agents as a mechanism to juice up the price he’s asking. The old Raider Raise (shouts to Jack Cronin) is never far away in these discussions. Only time will tell.

Taylor is undoubtedly talented, but he’s not been consistent for some time and never lived up to the pay grade he was given at the Gold Coast. It feels like being consistently adequate is the best you can hope for, and anything else would be house money. But that’s where Canberra are in the wake of the (George) Williams debacle: spending very little to get adequacy at seven and hoping the talent around that position is what takes you to the promise land. It’s a different path than what was available with the Englishman at the club, but plans change and clubs adapt. This might just be the best way forward.

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