The Canberra Raiders had plenty of lessons to learn from 2021. Fitness, playing style, actually pulling in the same direction…there are plenty of things to fix. They’ve started on a bunch of things, including adding new coaches, and targeting new players, to bring a difference to 2022. But another important process has also begun: a reshaping of the roster. And it’s meant that nine players that were on the Green Machine’s books in 2021 won’t be back.
While the aggregate of the departures is substantial, it’s the types of players that is most noteworthy. The Raiders have been ruthless this summer at letting middle forwards go that offered a strong run and effort in defence and little else. In the current iteration of the game, it seems there’s a premium on middles being able to offer more than just a willing run. Quick feet in the line, an offload, the ability to play as a link-man through the middle, an uncommon motor – these are all factors that are considered critical. This means there’s less space on the roster for honest, hard-running forwards like Dunamis Lui and Ryan James. Darby Medlyn and Kai O’Donnell ‘s Canberra careers were possibly ended by this, and Sia Soliola may have found himself with an awkward discussion if he’d sought to stay on. Siliva Havili may not have fit into that mould entirely (in that he has an offload and he has utility value), but that’s exactly what got him a deal at Souths.
This is compounded by Canberra’s (current) desire to keep Josh Hodgson and Tom Starling on the field together. If Hodgson is going to play half (or more) of the minutes of 13, then there isn’t as many minutes available for middles. That’s fortyish for Papalii, Tapine, Sutton and whichever backrower ends up playing around the middle rather than edge, with only limited time left over for the likes of Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler, Trey Mooney or Harry Rushton. If they do move on from playing Hodgson and Starling together, it will open up some minutes, but for now the plan (at least publicly) is to play them together, and it’s contributed to the clearance.
While there won’t be many minutes initially, the departures of the elder statesmen mean that any injuries, or changes in strategy will put new talent front-and-centre. Mooney was close to playing last season, and has already been touted by Soliola as being the leader of the next generation. Rushton was robbed of precious game time by the premature end of the Cup season. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to think that he could be playing a role in the 17 next season. He came to Canberra as a backrower but the opportunity may well be in the middle, and he’ll be talented enough to handle in my view. Horsburgh and Guler should also step up to fill the gap, and they should have been pushing more than they have already.
The second group in the clearout can be seen in the failed experiments with talented backs, and the confirmation of the young talent that was seen last season. The departures of Caleb Aekins and Curtis Scott formalise changes that were already occurring. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad looked great in his return (outside his first 20 minutes), and there’s no need for a backup. That role can be filled by the competition between Bailey Simonsson and Xavier Savage. Whoever misses out on the starting wing position will backup both Nicoll-Klokstad and wing. Jordan Rapana has also proven he can provide depth if necessary. Scott leaves so Matt Timoko can flourish. It was pretty hard to not love what Timoko did at the end of the season. It might not be the last of change in the centres if Jarrod Croker’s knee doesn’t get better (What do you need Jarrod? Ligaments? Synovial fluid? Cartilage? Can you take mine? Is that possible?).
There’s challenges in this transition. For starters so many of these players had been leaders at their positions and in the club. Luckily the roster is prepared for that transition, with leaders on the field emerging (Whitehead) and players like Soliola taking up off-field roles with the team to continue mentoring the players coming through the pathway. It’s not easy to have experience walk out the door, particularly when it was so often a big part of your depth. Knowing the next man up can do it and has done it before it a big deal. There’s a bit more of a leap of faith when you start asking the same of players who’ve never played an NRL game before. There’s also a risk with cohesion. Gainline Anayltics have argued for the importance of time spent together (on the field) as an important factor in team success. Shifting such a chunk can raise the risk of breaking functioning relationships, but almost every consistent on-field partnership was jettisoned in 2021. The Raiders are starting from the beginning regardless; may as well have the right pieces.
But it’s still a set of necessary changes, and part of the Raiders attempt to catch up on a game that move beyond their current makeup in 2021. You don’t want to shift a near third of your roster each year, but Canberra have done this out of necessity. On it’s own it won’t be enough to change their fortunes, but it’s a step in the right direction.