The Canberra Raiders 2021 season didn’t work out the way anyone wanted. Over the next few months we’re going to look at some key issues the Raiders need to sort out and the players that represent them. Welcome to the very first part of “We need to talk about”.
For many, nothing explains the Raiders failure over 2021 than players like Corey Horsburgh. The Red Horse only managed 10 games across two teams in this season. Most would argue Horsburgh didn’t have the fitness; or the style, to survive in “new” game, and with some notable talent hanging around that will, may well be the odd man out in 2022. For most, Horsburgh isn’t built for the new game, and if Redcliffe come knocking over the next few months, few would be surprised to see him go. That battle is upon us, and Canberra are right to try and hold on.
Corey Horsburgh burst into the Canberra Raiders 2019 squad with a hard carry and an easy offload. He immediately stood out among the cavalcade of middles that Coach Stuart was tested through the opening rounds. He played 22 rounds that season, including the grand final. He was immediate energy, a ball of energy as firey as the love of a man for a fine Cuban cigar. An offload and important skills as a link man across the middle meant he could add important variety to an attack that relied less on structure and more on opportunism. When he managed to not get into stinks and running battles with the opposition and himself, he was an effervescent force, a promise that the next generation of forwards could have the same power and skill as the current.
But that promise has been stalled over the following two seasons. Injuries have played a massive role. A lisfranc fracture – reportedly one of the most painful injuries one can sustain, robbed him of most of his 2020 and too much of that offseason. In 2021 there was a broken wrist and goddamn shoulder reconstruction. Three massive injuries in an 18 month period outbid career in a kind of stasis – constantly battling back to health and match fitness. This was complicated by rule changes and the challenge of their not being any second tier footy to build reps and fitness in.
His disjointed 2021 was his worst season in top flight footy. He averaged 91 metres a game for the Raiders, down from his rookie year (99 in 2019), and less than his few appearances in 2020 (105mpg). His defence struggled with the looseness of Peter V’Landys broken rucks, and he missed almost as many tackles in 10 games of 2021 (19) and he did in 22 of 2019 (26).
For many Horsburgh’s failure in 2021 more broadly represented a failure of the Canberra regime in the new model of rugby league. In this assessment Big Red was the avatar of a lumbering pack that didn’t have the endurance or the agility to match the requirements of better teams and a new style. There is merit to these concerns but they are overstated. While his fitness hasn’t been great, he’s more agile when fit than he’s been given credit for (or to be fair, displayed since his injuries). Remember, he was Sticky’s of first choice to fill in John Bateman at the start of 2020. Regardless how silly that seemed at the time (and we thought it pretty silly), smarter people than me put him in that position for the trial game. At some level there’s recognition of greater agility than we saw after his injuries.
Furthermore his offload and his ability to play through the middle are critical skills in the current game. So much of Canberra’s best play in 2021 was on the back of second phase play, and with Tom Starling lurking around the ruck, and Xavier Savage on hand, the space this gives could turbo charge the Milk’s offence. The absence of Josh Hodgson from the side will only increase the need of forwards that can move the ball through the middle third, allowing Jack and Jamal to work on edges rather than having to stand close to Starling.
What presence the Red Horse has had on social media suggests he, and the club, and fully aware of the need to keep him at his most agile. It seems likely to me that he’ll play 2022 as a more streamlined version of the bigger man he was during the last two seasons. Furthermore, the assumption that the current style of play is here to stay does little to account for the referees interpretation change at the end of 2021, or the increased focus on aerobic fitness that will occur through most teams across the 2021/22 off-season. It also assumes the man that changes his mind on a whim (or more specifically, on a broadcasters whim) will keep his dirty mitts to himself before next season. So projecting Horsburgh’s utility at this point in time is a difficult task.
The Raiders have made their intentions clear – as reported by David Polkinghorne here. They’re keen to keep him in town, but the difficult in projecting his potential right now is the hard bit. If Canberra pay him for his 2020-21 output, the appeal of Redcliffe could be the siren’s song that calls him home (true story: Cicero offered an alternative view of Sirens to Homer. His view was that it was their offer of untold knowledge that men lusted after rather than bird-person tang. I prefer that view when thinking of Uncle Wayne singing his siren’s song out over Moreton Bay enticing Corey to Redcliffe). Going home is one pull factor, but the fact that a club just seeking to establish itself may be more willing to take a bigger financial punt on what he might be before seeing how his development proceeds in 2022. I suspect this is a big part of why Donnie Furns identified him as a flight risk late last season.
Regardless of our speculation we’ll get some insight into how this wi play out this week. Players who’s contracts end at the end of the 2022 are now fair game on the open market. Canberra have signalled their plan. Let’s wait and see if the Dolphins get involved. Regardless, if the collectors come to harvest, I wouldn’t be so keen to see him go. 2021 was a bad year for the Red Horse, but I can count on one hand the number of Raiders who had a good one. The tendency to write him off prematurely is just one part of the pendulum of reaction to a changing game. It probably didn’t swing enough early in the year; now it risks swinging too much. Horsburgh may never be what we thought, but give him some time in 2022 to prove the world wrong.