When Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad joined the Raiders at the beginning of the 2019 season they’d spent two years in the wilderness, always promising *something* would change, and never quite finding the way to deliver it. Then Charnze arrived, bringing a belief born from an a motor as perpetual as his kindness. Alongside the arrival of John Bateman, he was an instrumental part in turning Canberra around. He organised the defence, he saved tries, he carried the ball seemingly every second play. They had to tell him to slow down just to make sure he didn’t burn himself out trying. He couldn’t help it.
When Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad left the field with injury in round five of this year, Canberra were still a good team. Sure they hadn’t quite clicked in all senses of the word, but they’d won three of four – their only loss coming when a series of freak injuries destroyed their edges against the Warriors. They were leading the red-hot grand finalists 6-0 (which should have been 12 if not for a put-down error by Jarrod Croker), which was slightly misleading in the sense that it felt like the Panthers were on top everywhere but the scoreboard. However, the Raiders were in the fight, in part because Nicoll-Klokstad was there, organising a defence to corral and corrupt whatever they’re highly fancied opposition was putting forth.
A stray, unpunished right cross from Villame Kikau was all it took. If it had happened in magic round the Panther would have spent a few weeks on the sideline and ten minutes in the sin bin. As it happened only Charnze had to leave the field, initially for a Head Injury Assessment from which he’d never return. Up until that point the Canberra had been a team with heart, fighting for every inch. With Charnze at the helm their defence the Milk conceded just 62 points over 185 sets at a rate of 0.34 points per set. At the time it was alongside the elite of the competition, comparing favourably to the elite teams like the Eels (0.30 pps), Storm (0.34pps) and Roosters (0.34pps) – but not as good as the Panthers (0.16pps). It continued a trend of the the defence basically being great since the moment he (and Bateman) arrived. He contributed through organisaiton. He contributed through filling in at A gap, swallowing bigger runners with his whole body to ensure they didn’t score. He stopped tries covering across – who could forget his efforts against the Titans to stop Anthony Don in the corner after sweeping three-quarters across the field to be there?
Without Charnze, the defence became a calamity. After Charnze went down it went south, quickly. While the season long per set average is around 0.57 (broadly equivalent to the teams in Canberra’s mid-table home), it blew out in the ‘Aekins era’ (0.75 pps – worse than the worst defence in the competition – the Dogs with 0.71pps), before returning close to normal in correlation with Jordan Rapana’s time at fullback (0.48pps). As the season has wore on it’s become more glaringly obvious that the Raiders have desperately missed him, as most elite defences have settled around 0.35 points per set – pretty much where Canberra were at the beginning of the year with Charnze.
Here is where I put the usual caveat. Nicoll-Klokstad couldn’t possibly have been the sole reason for this. It’s hard to tell how you separate the fact that Canberra played some pretty budget teams through the first four weeks (and 13 odd sets against the Panthers) with Charnze at the back before it all fell apart. Given everything that’s happened, it’s a massive stretch to suggest that the presence of one player would have altered the the outcome of the Panthers game, let alone the Milk’s annus horribilis. The Raiders have done an ok job in recent weeks defensively (at least in comparison to much of the rest of the season) and so clearly there’s work that needed to be done by people other than the fullback. And there always has to be the note here that I did all the counting here, and I got distracted by a video of a monkey chilling out in a hot spring for a good few minutes today, so I dunno, grains of salt hey.
Defensive organisation isn’t all that Nicoll-Klokstad offers. His willingness to take hit ups, essentially filling a ‘third prop’ role that BJ Leilua used to, is a critical part of Canberra’s success (not the least to give rest to the big men in the middle). His a strong and agile runner, and will provide support through the middle third to the ball-runners that have too often made half a break, held an arm out looking for a runner only to find dead space. He may not be the ballplayer people would love him to be, but what he offers in other roles is so impressive it could be critical for Canberra’s finals chances.
So Charnze returns, for now on the bench – but if you think that is going to last long I’ve got a bridge to sell you. He may not have the match fitness either, so the bench start will provide a bit of cover before he gets involved. I don’t want to pretend he can solve everything. He’s not the messiah (or even naughty hey). Canberra’s problems this year probably can’t be solved by effort, no matter how goddamn wholesome and heartfelt it is.
In the end the biggest concern I have about this is for Charnze’s health. As we’ve noted before, and will be discussed plenty over the coming days, this was a really serious injury, one that isn’t just about his ability to perform on the field, but his ongoing health beyond this season and beyond football. If he does or doesn’t turn the Raiders season around, it would be worthless if he did so at the expense of his future. To an extent there’s always risk with footy, and that’s something the club and he would have (hopefully) discussed. But I dunno, I just want him to be ok. Call me crazy. Given it’s often been discussed how he needs to be told to do less on the field, I hope the club is taking the same precautions with his return to it.
So Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad rejoins the Raiders after months out watching the Raiders implode, then desperately try to put every back together again. Hopefully he brings some structure and heart to the defence, and his familiar powerful, swerving and repeated run to the back five. And most of all, I hope he does so safely.