The Dolphin Effect

BY DAN

After a fair bit of a dance, the NRL has finally announced that the Redcliffe Dolphins would be the much anticipated new franchise. While it’s not the expansion to a more national competition that smart people want, it’s still a a good thing for the broader game. But as good as it is for rugby league, it will be a challenge for the Raiders, who now have to worry about what that will mean for their roster.

Don Furner identified Josh Hodgson, Ryan Sutton and Corey Horsburgh as potential targets for the new team. Corey Harawira-Naera has also been identified as a potential target for the new club. While you’d normally hope that your team CEO wouldn’t identify recruitment options for new clubs, it’s actually not very surprising. All four of these players have contracts that are run out at the end of 2022, and the only other player on Canberra’s roster who’s deal ends in the same timeframe – Tom Starling – is neck deep in negotiation of an extension. So in a sense Furner was mostly just stating a fact. Yes, it is likely that good players that don’t have deals for 2023 will be targeted by a team looking to start in 2023.

But just how likely is this? In all cases there’s arguments for and against. The player I’m most concerned about is Corey Horsburgh. Big Red has failed to reach his potential in Canberra, mostly because his body hasn’t kept up. From the outside it’s hard to know how much of that is conditioning, how much is bad luck, and how much is the way the game has changed so rapidly for middle forwards since he joined the top level. At just 23, it’s not hard to see why his upside would be enticing. He’s from around about where the new team is and it would be safe to assume that’s a pull factor. As is the fact that Wayne Bennett will likely be coach, and if you want to reach your potential as a middle forward, Wayno will make sure it happens.

The next most likely to leave from that list to me seems to be Josh Hodgson. It’s clear he wants a multi-year deal and that Canberra aren’t interested in him beyond 2022. But the likely presence of Wayne Bennett, the man who turns hookers into nuns, and the man who famously berated Hodgson for having the temerity to kick the ball, would presumably be a bit of a disincentive for a player who is famous for perhaps doing a bit more than he should. But then the money and years might be enough to a deal with playing with an overbearing grandpa. What could be more likely is that the Dolphins snare Brandon Smith, removing him from the Titans wish-list and leaving them open to pursue Hodgson. The effect is the same for Canberra.

Harawira-Naera is an interesting one. He was out of shape in 2020, and on a short leash in 2021. He had some brilliant moments in attack, and some galling moments in defence, and those lapses saw him removed from the starting line up. With the side having Harry Rushton in the wings, Elliott Whitehead and Hudson Young established, and some handy youth picked up in the form of new recruit from Souths, Brock Garnder, there might be enough depth to see the Raiders be circumspect on money and years for the Kiwi. An international forward who can tear an edge apart would be a great start for a new team. He’s another player like Hodgson who is probably looking for a long term deal and some positional certainty in his next deal. I suspect if the new team comes knocking that may be a deciding factor.

That Ryan Sutton was called out by Furner was a horrible thing to hear. The man can play big minutes, even in Vlandysball, and remain effective the whole time. He’s young, and still improving, and that should be enough reason to try and keep him home. He really should be part of Canberra’s three-prop rotation alongside Papalii and Tapine for years to come (hopefully). Sutton should be a priority for the Raiders. That doesn’t mean he won’t be similarly important for a new club, but at least leads me to believe that as long as Sticky and Peter Mulholland have eyes that they’ll try to keep him in Canberra.

A risk that was not named by Furner was to the Raider’s backline. Several players with uncertain spots in the backline are able to be approached come 1 November next year. It would require the Dolphins to be patient about building their squad, but offering more money or opportunity may be enough to Fogarty players out of their current deals, and a combination of ambition and opportunity may have real ramifications. The Green Machine have enough moving parts to suggest reasons to be concerned.

For example, it seems the likely way that Canberra will start 2022 is with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at the back, with Bailey Simonsson and Xavier Savage fighting out for a wing spot. All three are available for approach from the rival club at the end of the 2022 season. Harley Smith-Shields is on the same contract pathway, and the Raiders will be in the awkward position of having to make it clear that he’s the future while captain Jarrod Croker is competing with him for a position.

It’s not hard to see how a lack of action, or opportunities at preferred positions over 2022 could shape attitudes about staying and going. It wouldn’t surprise to see the new club offering Savage fullback money, or if Canberra push Charnze to centre, a return to his preferred position for the competition’s best defensive fullback. Harley Smith-Shields could be offered star money before he proves he’s one, because that’s what it might take for a new club to find game changers.

It will be a tricky needle to thread for the Milk. Even if they do their due diligence and work out quickly what their best back five looks like, they still will have the risk of Savage, Smith-Shields or Simonsson walking just because there’s more money and more certainty elsewhere. It wasn’t mentioned by Furner and maybe that was the point. A bit of protection via misdirection. Time will tell if the addition of a new side will impact the Raiders. They won’t be the only team looking to the vulnerable bits of their roster, and that may ultimately be what saves Canberra. Being forgotten by the league so often may finally work in their favour.

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