The importance of reserve grade

BY DAN

For the second year in a row the Canberra Raiders season ended with Semi Valemei dropping the ball so regularly it made you wonder if his hands were made of pasta.

The thing about Semi is that he has potential to be quite a good footballer. He’s surprisingly quick, and he gets through a powerful amount of yardage work – he cracked 150 metres on the ground in the majority of his top grade games this season. He’s aggressive in defence, and can lay a hit when he gets his decisions and timing right. But it’s all held back because of this problem he has with catching any ball that goes above his eye-line (probably terrible at dealing with nagging off-spin for that matter, but I digress). The Raiders have signed him through 2024, and presumably keen for him to address this weakness.

It’s a bit frustrating that two seasons have ended this way. The high ball is a big part of the deal of being a winger. If you can’t catch a ball, well, that’s an heel so brazen even Achilles would give it side-eye. Getting more comfortable under fire takes practice and game time. I’m sure Valemei has done his share of work on the training paddock but there’s nothing quite like the bright lights and twisting winds of a meaningful footy game to put your skill set to the test. Players need practice in game situations to get better at performing skills that are driven by keeping your conscious mind away from your muscle memory.

Unfortunately for Semi he’s had limited chances to do this in between the two debacles. Instead of playing 25 rounds of footy this year, Valemei got 11 top line games and a handful of NSW Cup games before the competition was shut down. Instead of honing his skills each week, he spent huge chunks of the season watching. That’s not to say the outcome would be any different – he may still be part of a long line of tall wingers that for some reason can’t catch (most will point to Edrick but Xavier Coates is in the same bag). We wrote last year that Valemei had been the victim of having to learn and develop in front of our eyes instead in the relative anonymity of cup footy. Again he was forced with this conundrum as the option to develop in the lower grades was taken away from him. Next year he’ll (hopefully) benefit from regular footy each week when cup footy returns.

Valemei’s singular weakness wasn’t the only issue at the Raiders that was impacted by the absence of cup footy. Brad Schneider barely got a run this year, and I can’t help but think that might have been different if he’d been playing cup footy through the period between his Subloo debut in round 11 against the Storm. Instead he spent the back end of the year not developing his game and proving his ability. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that Schneider’s development has been stalled these last two years by the cowardly coronavirus is the reason that the Raiders have reportedly signed on both Sam Williams, and left footed Sam Williams (Matt Frawley) for next year. This potentially pushes Schneider to the NSW cup bench (where he spent the start of 2021) if the Raiders sign a front-line half this offseason. You’d hope the Raiders are thinking longer term than this. Only time will tell.

There have been other impacts. Corey Horsburgh spent more of the season watching footy than he would have liked and and was short of a run by the time the Raiders needed him in the last days of the season. The lack of progress in Horsburgh’s game, as well as development opportunities for players like Clay Webb, Trey Mooney and Harry Rushton may have been the reason that the club is reportedly extending Sia Soliola and Dunamis Lui. This inability to get game time was also behind Kai O’Donnell and Adam Cook leaving the club to play in the Queensland Rugby League.

It makes the performance of Harley Smith-Shields and Matt Timoko all the more impressive. Both players have had limited time to prove their worth and improve their games below first grade over the past two seasons. In 2020 neither got much game time in either grade outside of brief forays into top line footy. This season there was more cup footy for Timoko at the beginning of the year, but Smith-Shields was injured early, and had to work his way into the top grade without the benefit of coming up through the grades.

But these talents are the exception to the rule. Reserve grade can be an important part of the transition to top line footy; an important time to identify and remedy those glaring holes that top line teams will exploit without mercy. Unfortunately for Semi Valemei he hasn’t got the time he’s needed to fix his weakness.

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