Elliott Whitehead has been perennially underrated by all and sundry across the rugby league commentariat for his entire NRL career. He’s always felt like a Canberra Raiders secret to me: a ball-playing forward with the defensive ability to fix everyone else’s errors. It’s not shown in the stats, and sometimes not even the highlights. But every good team needs its Horace Grant. And Smelly has been exactly that.
It’s been interesting in recent weeks to see a desire to shift Whitehead off his spot on the edge. Partly this is to do with the success of those that filled in while he was injured. Both Hudson Young and Corey Harawira-Naera had good moments (sometimes great, such as Harawira-Naera’s game against the Cronulla Sharks), both are younger, and the introduction of a bit of athleticism on the edges against some week defences was a boon for the Milk. So many began to look beyond Whitehead, and towards a different looking edge for Canberra. This was compounded at the time by the extension he signed with Canberra a year before the club needed to pursue it. While I don’t think the deal will bite the Raiders, it’s a risk the club didn’t have to embrace.
It’s an understandable but unnecessary to look beyond Whitehead though. He remains Canberra’s best edge defender, regardless of what the missed tackles totals show. Elliott brings immediate stability wherever he goes – just note how in the two games of his return ,the Raiders right side defence has solidified, and the left side defence, where he came from, has basically been a sieve in two of the four halves of football since. Canberra have suffered eight line breaks in two games and (by my count) seven of them went where Elliott used to be, rather than where he is now. Given Sam Williams, and two rookies, are sitting outside him, it’s an impressive effort.
In attack he’s not a barnstorming runner but he is an effective one (though he was the only player outside Hudson Young to crack 100 metres on the ground against the Storm). He does this unselfishly; the Raiders use Whitehead as an instant quick ruck, because no one can stop him getting to his belly. He sacrifices his own metres for the sake of others in aid of putting the rest of the side in the best place to succeed. He’s also a critical ball player; a secondary creator who can be the safety valve for any indecisive half. For example, it was his grubber which ended in Jordan Rapana’s hands for Canberra’s first try against the Dragons, and he has as many try assists this season as Sam Williams (and Jack Wighton before he picked up three against the Storm), and more than Tom Starling. He’s been a critical part of Wighton’s development, providing a safety blanket that Jack could rely on (and sometimes over-rely on) as part of the only well-structured attack Canberra has run in the last few years.
And this is only more important right now with the injury to Tom Starling. While many are keen to move him to the middle to replicate Hodgson’s ball-playing role there, it’s an unnecessary move. Hodgson’s role was important because getting Starling involved, and having (deciding?) to play Sam Williams meant Canberra were sacrificing creativity around the ruck and on the right. Inserting Hodgson into that role fills the gap his departure created. With Hodgson in the middle, that ball play is no longer needed at the ruck, but support is still needed for Sam on the right. Elliott can provide that – both in attack and defence, and the Raiders can spin on. It also positions one of Canberra’s best defenders on the right edge in defence to be a watcher when Tommy Trbojevic sweeps around to Manly’s left next week.
In the short term this desire to move Whitehead around is probably a moot point. Corey Harawira-Naera, like Tommy Starling, is likely going to miss the rest of Canberra’s season. So Smelly will probably stay on the right. But when the time comes to start 2022, don’t sleep on what Whitehead offers to an edge. Every team needs someone who makes everyone else better. Smelly does just that.