Ryan James joined the Canberra Raiders last off-season as the good kind of gamble.
He was coming on a cut-price deal. A potential representative level player on next to nothing, he’d spent too much time off the field nursing a series of horrid ACL injuries for other clubs to be interested. Canberra were on the way up, and James was a nice-to-have. The kind of player that could have been as good as the Raiders best middles. But it was OK if he wasn’t, the Green Machine had a conga-line of replacements ready to take his place.
That gamble didn’t come off. James never found his feet in Canberra. While he looked tremendous in the earliest outings of the season – he averaged 105 metres on the ground through his first four full games of the season – he fell out of favour as the season progressed. After round five he never played more than three rounds in a row. It wasn’t until round 22 that he cracked 100 metres again (for the Dogs). By the end of the season the only middle forward to average less metres per run out of Canberra’s regular middle forwards was Sia Sioliola. Like Sia he seemed to struggle defensively the longer the season went, and became part of a soft middle that the Milk often revealed when possession turned against them.
There were a few reasons for this. One was the style of game changed so dramatically in 2021 that being a hard running middle forward was not enough. The game necessitated forwards have an additional elite skill. A perpetual motor, brutal defence, a unstoppable offload or deft passing as a link through the middle. One of these things, and preferably more than that, were required. At his best James was good at a bunch of things (and just OK at others), but he never adopted a workable ‘extra’ elite skill that would make him useful in the current style of football.
Partly that was the nature of James as a player. He’d always been very good at a bunch of things, and it’s why he’d been around but not in Origin squads. He was a good strong ball runner, but there were better. He had no offload (well, technically he had one for the entire season). He was a solid defender, but others didn’t give away as many penalties. He had a good motor; good, not great. In Vlandosball you need a point of difference. James didn’t have one and it seems the season wore him down.
I thought he might stay in Canberra to take over the role of squad mentor from Sia Soliola. But Sia is staying, and more minutes and opportunities await James at Brisbane. It seems a better suit to me. He’ll be the mentor to a young pack – the old head that may not play huge minutes but makes sure that everyone is working towards the same goal. And he’ll likely get to play more regularly than he did for the Milk.
For Canberra, rather than being a nice-to-have, he became a reminder of the promise of the off-season that had turned to dust. The Raiders middles were meant to be a weapon, with James to cherry-on-top of that pack. Instead they were ill-equipped for the challenge that the season would present. Moving on makes sense – the middle isn’t the bevy of talent once thought, and if the game remains the same (big IF), the Milk already have players that can do what James does, just better, and with an offload, or quick feet in the line, or an elite motor.
Not all gambles pay off, which is something the Raiders have learned painfully in 2021. They’ll need to adjust how they consider which middles might work going forward. For James, he’ll go closer to home, with a bigger role and more years on his contract. Maybe it worked out for him after all.