The Canberra Raiders search for a partner for Jack Wighton seems to have taken upon a clear hierarchy and aim in recent weeks. Instead of the focus being finding a stop-gap solution, Canberra appear to be placing an emphasis on bringing Parramatta young gun Dylan Brown to god’s country. Their interest reported by many sources since August, but recent reporting by Brent Read in the Courier Mail suggested the Raiders were pouring their recruitment efforts into this chase.
Brown is contracted in 2022 (and has a player option for 2023) which tells us a few things. Firstly, Canberra aren’t satisfied with the existing halfback market so they’re looking beyond it. I can understand that. Mitchell Pearce, Ash Taylor and Luke Brooks have their charms and foibles, and all have reasons they’ll be a challenge to get. Pearce is (so far) being claimed for 2022 by Newcastle. If the plan is to find a stop-gap measure between now and the future, starting by losing one year of probably maximum three year stay isn’t ideal. That obviously changes if Pearce is cut loose sooner. The challenge of Brooks is, and will remain, just how much of his contract the Tigers are willing to eat. He’s reportedly on a lot of money (upwards of 800k according to News Limited) and it’s simply too much money to be paying for a player who might not be the answer, short or long term. Taylor has apparently been approached by Canberra, but only on a very team friendly deal. It feels like Canberra only get that deal if Taylor is choosing between England and the NRL, and even then the money difference will likely mean they lose. Chanel Harris-Tevita is still sitting out there as a potential option too (and one I really like), but so far there’s been no signs of interest from Canberra.
While chasing Brown so vehemently won’t necessarily keep them out of those markets, it does show where the priority lies. Canberra is willing to risk going into 2022 with a mishmash of bit parts if it means a Brown future in green. This also means that Brad Schneider’s future in Canberra is even more cloudy. He’s barely got on the park in the last two years because of the ‘Rona, so while we’ve got some hints, we’ve got no idea if he’ll ever develop and what he’ll be when that occurs. Canberra are looking at Brown, only a few years older and a more established commodity, instead pinning their hopes on what’s in the box.
Whether or not Brown is a good fit in Canberra needs some unpacking. The perceived benefits rely almost exclusively on the idea that there’s more to his game than we’re seeing. So far he’s been much more a runner than an organiser or ball-player, and with the future of the Milk being Wighton and Tom Starling, adding another run-first player might not be the best balance. He also doubles down on Jack in favouring playing on the left a though it’s worth noting though that he also played plenty on the right this year.
He’s not renowned as a creator. In fact he has only two try assists this season, which would put him behind Bailey Simonsson (3) and Caleb Aekins (3) and equal with Curtis Scott (2). And this is not necessary an outlier. In his two previous seasons he topped five try-assists in both. I guess this could be explained by him playing so much on his non-proffered right hand side of the ruck this year – but that’s cold comfort if the Raiders are expecting him to sit there upon coming to Canberra. It is also partly due to Parramatta’s style of play – they tend to either succeed of Reed Mahoney’s work in the middle, or pushing it side-to-side utilising Clint Gutherson (18 try assists) as the critical decision point outside the halves (indeed, most of Moses’ 14 try assists come from his boot). Is what the Raiders need another spine member happy to hang out on the left edge and watch the game go by?
It seems the intriguing thing about Brown is that because he’s been behind Moses and Gutho it means that he could well be more than we know. That does seem to be the impetus at Canberra’s end – paying for potential. He may never be an Adam Reynolds style ball dominant organiser, but then neither was George Williams or Aidan Sezer, and I’m not convinced he couldn’t perform more of this role if asked. He’s shown he’s comfortable ball-playing in the line, and is happy to engage the line – he’ll steal a break if given half a chance or some space by the defence. He can be a solid defender too (although his 96% tackle efficiency probably overstates just how solid), something that the Raiders have desperately missed from the starting 7 this season. So it seems Canberra is seeing that developing ball-playing, that kicking game and solid defence and thinking it could be more than that.
There are legitimate reasons to think this might not work. It’s not clear Brown is the fit Canberra needs right now. It’s a big risk to take for someone that could potentially just double down on Canberra’s problems rather than mitigate them. Putting a team full of ball-runners together feels like overreacting to rule changes that might not stick around and failing to do the necessary work of building more fluent and cohesive attacking structures. Hoping that he’ll then get better in specifically the ways the Milk need is risky business.
But this kind of risk is one that Canberra often have to take to get talent – though usually not at this price point. Young, talented halves don’t just drop into their lap. The Raiders post Williams have been digging through the bargain basement bin looking for a solution, and while Brown is a risk, the upside is probably more than can be expected elsewhere in the market. It’s a deep breaths time to hope Sticky can develop a half – his track record with halves is *ahem* patchy. But you can’t just sit around hoping for better options when they don’t exist. It’s not often the Milk can grab a legit starter and potential star on the open market. And at just 21, he’s all upside.
And there’s the rub. Brown is 21 and talented – a sort after commodity. This is precisely the reason I find it hard to think this is a realistic play. I understand the Eels are in cap trouble going forward, but I’d be genuinely surprised if he was the victim there. Even the tin-foil theory that the Eels will pull through Jake Arthur at Brown’s expense seems illogical. There is constant speculation over Brad Arthur’s job (right or in my view wrongly). The idea that he’ll be able to clear a path for his boy while the club is potentially pushing him out the door doesn’t seem plausible to me.
This seems like a consensual Raider Raise scenario. Canberra do want Brown. They do want to pay him what he’s worth (and in all likelihood more). But that price can’t cover the realities of playing in a small market, financial or otherwise. It just seems more likely to me that this noise is about Canberra coveting Brown, and his representation making sure that Parramatta know it so his pay packet isn’t the one sacrificed to keep the Eels’ roster together. It’s also more conspiratorial, but not unreasonable to think this is more of a story told by the Raiders to pass the time until Pearce or Brooks is released, or Taylor gives up and chooses Catalans over Canberra and we start next year with Matt Frawley. Sigh.
So come 1 November (when Brown can be officially approached by other teams) we’ll get a better idea of whether this is feasible. At this stage I’m pretty sceptical, and even if it does happen i’m not sure it will work. But it may just be the only chance the Raiders have to grab such a talent.