The Cost of Starling’s Injury

BY DAN

Tom Starling played through the last twelve minutes of Canberra’s loss to the Storm with a broken jaw because he’s tough as nails. If only the Raiders’ fortunes were as resilient. Like the loss to the Storm it’s not a death knell for the season, but it an awful strain on a side barely holding it together. Starling will be out at least four weeks, if not the season. And to be honest, the Raiders will be lucky if those two things aren’t one and the same.

It’s a shame for the Raiders, but also for Tom. After a stellar 2020 Starling has proven last year was no fluke and established himself as a bonafide first grader. It’s hardly a career threatening injury, but there’s always the potential for serious damage. We hope whatever decision is made regarding surgery (or not) is made with the knowledge that Tom’s career will be longer than right now.

It’s a testament to Starling’s efforts this season (and last) that he’s become such an important part of side that already had two international hookers. His success is born from three important skills: a unquestionable work rate and toughness, a clean pair of heels, and his ability to be a servant in attack, taking nothing off the table and instead allowing the other Raiders skill players the space to thrive. He’s still developing as a ball player in his own right (he has less try assists this year than Elliott Whitehead), but the Raiders have recognised the utility of such a net positive player. They’ve effectively identified him as the hooker for the club following Josh Hodgson by the way of a rumoured contract extension in the pipeline. Just when that changeover happens is yet to be seen.

This ability to take nothing off the table has been a critical part of Starling’s, and Canberra’s, success this season. He’s the only spine player that offers this. Wighton can go missing for parts of seasons games, Sam Williams is no threat to the line, George left, Hodgson overplays, Charnze is a developing passer, and Rapana is always two seconds from overcalling on the blind when it’s just him against 11 defenders. Starling might not be a star (yet?), but he supports everything Canberra does, making good decisions around when to test tired forwards around the ruck, or when to shift the ball to creators outside him. His work around the ruck has allowed Canberra to adjust for the loss of George Williams by shifting Josh Hodgson wider, allowing Canberra to maintain creativity in space at multiple points across the park. It’s hardly been perfect – Canberra’s attack has been barely adequate, but mustering that has been impressive given George Williams departure, and other players’ patchy form.

It will be interesting to see how Canberra react to this loss. They won’t be able to roll out the same old plan (obviously) but can use a super-sized version in short bursts by bringing Siliva Havili into their 17 to play minutes at hooker. This will allow Josh Hodgson to continue his roaming role in attack. The challenge is that Havili has had very little footy recently, so such an approach would necessarily need to be for shorter spurts than the usual 55ish minutes that Starling plays. It would be worth pursuing though, if only to maintain a bit of natural variety in Canberra’s attack.

More likely though, is a reversion to type, with Josh Hodgson playing 80 minutes at 9. This has it’s charms (for me). The last time Hodgson played this much minutes at 9 without a dominant half was arguably over the pre-George Williams period. It’s been a while, and he’s suffered an ACL injury since then and the games changed markedly. I’m not here to tell you Hodgson is about to turn back the clock, but he’s been better than most recognise. While the Raiders have created a few more points recently, it hasn’t strayed that far from the margin of error so to speak. Their best periods in terms of creating line breaks (i.e. creating opportunities to score) have been rounds 1-6 and 12-15 when Hodgson played the majority of minutes at 9, and a Williams played alongside him. So all hope is not lost. As we said, having an elite 9 spare, and potentially an international rake in Havili to come off the bench isn’t the worst place to be.

The major challenge of this injury isn’t so much the increase of a role for Josh Hodgson, but rather the pressure it puts on Sam Williams as a ball-player. Williams is hardly dynamic, rarely engages or threatens the line and puts pressure on the players outside him to contend with multiple defenders that have slid across from Williams happily. The dirty secret of why Canberra have benefited from Hodgson being wider from the ruck is the fact it creates a fulcrum one pass wide that engages the defence and creates accordingly, meaning defenders can’t simply cover across onto the Canberra edges. The presence of Elliott Whitehead on the right, as well as the potential return of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad could ameliorate that by presenting a threat on Williams’ inside shoulder and a creative option on his outside, but it’s hardly ideal.

Update: I’ve been thinking about this more since I wrote it, and another thing that will be interesting to see is when Canberra choose to open up their attack. So often recently they’ve exclusively targeted the middle, and only chose to expand when Starling came on. Perhaps that’s a personnel thing but it’s also a game plan thing. Starling doesn’t come on until Sticky feels progress has been made in wearing down the opposition’s middle (hence why he didn’t come on until half time against the Storm, and didn’t come on until late earlier in the season). I’ll be curious if a personnel change begets that game plan shift still, or if it’s made more organically.

It also means the Raiders can’t rely on Hodgson to cover major middle forward minutes. Ryan Sutton’s health – and ability to ramp up his output over a longer period – become critical here. Canberra are unlikely to be able to bring new bench forwards in to play big minutes. Most of them have had scant opportunities for match fairness. They’ll need to up the minutes of players who have been on the field. Sutton is a perfect place to start. Guler will play more minutes. Whoever joins the squad can’t be relied on for a substantial minute output.

It’s not good, but nothing is at the moment for the Raiders. They’ve shown plenty of cajones in fighting for this season, even when it’s gotten proper difficult. This is another obstacle, one of the biggest they’ve faced this year. Hopefully they’ll face it with the same spirit they’ve shown in recent weeks to keep fighting for a season that was probably lost in May.

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