I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it’s possible that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad developed his ball-playing game while he spent three months on the sidelines.
Since his return, Charnze has appeared far more comfortable as the second man on shift movements. He’s only made one error on the Raiders sweeping and structured attacking plays, and he’s generally looked really comfortable doing so. He even registered his first try, and line-break, assist of the season.
It could be a step up from what he was producing before. Nicoll-Klokstad has never been that skillful as a ball player. His skillset is defensive acumen mixed with a ‘all-terrain” running style: a Ferrari in the sheets and a rally car in the streets. He is elite in what he does, and in particular defensively there’s been a strong correlation with his absence and the collapse of the Raiders staunch defence established over the previous two years. He has a unique motor, capable of taking dirty carry after dirty carry and still find the effort to be in the right spot moments later to be on the end of an attacking movement, take an offload, or be in position to save a try with a cover tackle in defence. Not every fullback is the same, and sometimes it’s about finding the unique talents of the players you have an allowing them to flourish. The Raiders pay Charnze to be very good, not a superstar, and his outsize importance to Canberra’s success makes him worth every dollar and more.
Still, finding better ball play from the fullback has been the white whale of Canberra’s attack since Jack Wighton made the move to the front line. Between 2016 and 2018 Wighton averaged 10 try assists a season (more than he has as five-eighth) through essentially a mixture of the role he performs as five-eighth now as primary ball-player on the left, and some support work through the middle. He rarely ventured over to the right side, as part of a setup these pages used to call “split five-eighths” whereby Blake Austin would operate exclusively on the right. The decisions that Jack had to make weren’t difficult but provided a crucial link point in attack.
While Canberra has still thrived without it, it’s always felt like an an area that if the Raiders improved, without sacrificing Nicoll-Klokstad’s other strengths, could be a game changer for the Milk. In the brief moments that Bailey Simonsson and Caleb Aekins played at fullback this year, what stood out was their comfort in chiming in as a ball-playing option (to varying degrees of success). Wighton was happy to have options outside him that could do more. This need for support has only increased with the injuries suffered by Jarrod Croker, who had always been important creative support to Wighton on the left.
So imagine my surprise that over the small amount of time since his return, Nicoll-Klokstad has shown a few moments that suggest maybe something has clicked for him. He had several good involvements in shifts against Manly – including one that ended with him scoring late in the game. Then again against the Warriors he continuously looked comfortable playing the role of the secondary creator outside Jack Wighton on shift movements left. No better was this displayed than in the Raiders first try in the second half.
You can see here Charnze playing as the second man off Jack’s shoulder. He receives the ball, digs into the line, drawing the attention of the covering defence, and times his pass perfectly to put Seb Kriis into the hole between the the centre and winger. It’s hardly Tommy Terrific at his finest, but it’s a solid involvement that with the other information we’ve seen in his return suggests maybe there’s even more to Nicoll-Klokstad that a barnstorming defensive mastermind.
Of course this is some major small sample size theatre. That’s the rub. He’s played roughly 70 minutes of game time over two games since his return. In both games the Raiders forward pack was competitive (or better), meaning that the decisions he was making were made with time. And when that time was removed, like when Marcelo Montoya tried to kill him after Matt Frawley sold him out, Nicoll-Klokstad wasn’t able to solve a shit situation himself. It’s hardly the kind of evidence you want to pin your hopes on.
But I think it’s worth keeping an eye on in the Raiders remaining game (games? *crosses fingers*) and throughout the start of next year to see if it’s sustained against quality competition over time. If it is, it could be a game changer for the Raiders, opening up the shape on sweeping movements that has been lost in recent years. And it could turn Charnze from a very good fullback to a great one.