Do you remember the last time the Raiders had to go to market to find spare hooker?
If it’s been a while for you, when Josh Hodgson tore his ACL asunder in late 2017 they went searching for needles in haystacks to find what others had missed. Canberra had already let backup hooker Kurt Baptiste walk, and most of the free agency market had found their homes for 2018. That meant the Green Machine had to go looking where others feared to tread. Chief recruiter Peter Mulholland put on his big boy pants and found Coach Stuart two surprisingly good options – Siliva Havili (hey, I know him!) and Craig Garvey.
You know the story from there. Havili and Garvey both showed they were of first grade quality in brief forays in pre-season, only for Sticky to get enamored with the idea of
hurting Aidan Sezer making Aidan Sezer go full Des Hasler. It didn’t last too long, and Havili eventually became the first choice nine. Havili impressed and when Hodgson returned, he and Havili became an underrated combination. Now Havili and Hodgson have gone, and Starling attracted the attention of the New South Wales police (twice!). Canberra are back where they started: in search of a bit of assurance and insurance around the ruck. Yet again they are looking for Havili.
Well not Havili himself – unfortunately that ship has sailed – but rather the idea of him. When the Raiders signed Havili and Garvey both were very available – there wasn’t a line for their services. But both proved capable footballers. Havili ensconced himself as a critical member of the team over the next four years, playing plenty of international footy in addition to filling every crack the Milk needed. Garvey too showed promised throughout the 2018 season. By May NRL.com was speculating as to when he’d crack the top grade, and that was because he was busy winning games with his strong body and fast feet. Alas his life off-field got in the way (and a drugs charge). But between Havili and Garvey, the Green Machine went to a market that had theoretically sewn up the best 15 or so hookers in the competition, and found themselves two that could happily start.
Partly that is because hooker seems to be a position that is notoriously impossible to scout. Josh Hodgson joined Canberra with less fanfare than the success that followed. Tom Starling was clubless when he was brought to town. Damian Cook was an understudy at the Bulldogs until the Rabbitohs gave him a shot. Api Koroisau was unwanted at Manly because Manase Fainu was the new thing. Far out once upon a time the Raiders gifted the Panthers their eventual Clive Churchill winning hooker in Luke Priddis. It’s always a place that if you look in the right places you can find a quality player whiling away their time in search of an opportunity.
Canberra need to find a player like Havili again because the depth chart is looking shallow. Some may hope that Hodgson will stay, but despite the delay in the finalisation of his deal at Wests, I can’t see a world in which he is wearing lime green in 2022. His relationship with Coach Stuart, for reasons that we will only ever have pieces of, seems untenable. That has been obvious to many of us for quite some time, which is what makes it even more confusing as to why Havili was let go. Unlike the unfortunate timing of 2017 that led to Baptiste walking out the door just before they lost their starting hooker, the Milk have known for some time that Hodgson would not likely be staying with the club. What makes the decision to let Havili go all the more confusing is his utility, and combination with Tom Starling. If Hodgson was destined to go, keeping Havili would have made a lot of sense. I guess it all looks clearer in hindsight.
The Raiders do have Adrian Trevilyan in house, but it’s a big ask to force someone with so little experience into such a potentially prominent role. Forget whether he’s got the talent – Trevilyan only played 12 games of Cup footy last year, mostly off the bench, and exceeded 40 minutes in just five of those games. He did spend the back half of the year playing Canberra Cup, but while it’s a good run for fitness, it’s hardly getting his body and mind ready for the top level. I’m not saying he can’t do it, but Canberra shouldn’t burn their future by forcing him into a substantial role before he’s ready.
There’s not really other options available – it would be doubly idiotic to make Brad Schneider learn hooker instead of learning the halfback spot. I would be terrified if he thought either Matt Frawley or Sam Williams could pull a Sezer. Neither are as physical capable as Aidan, and Canberra’s middle would be rolling out train tracks for opposition locomotives to power along. In addition, the process of turning a player into a half decent hooker takes years not weeks, as demonstrated by Lachlan Croker’s evolution at Manly.
So it means that Canberra will have to hit the free-agency market to ensure they have cover for Starling. There’s not a lot to see out there. Mitch Rein, dropped by the in-desperate-need-of-a-hooker Titans, just signed with the Eels – which should give you an idea of the talent available on the open market. You could argue the Bulldogs, Titans, Redcliffe and maybe the Broncos and Warriors, are all in the hunt for a 9, and on the off chance that Api Koroisau becomes available (which I don’t think is likely), it seems implausible that the Milk will be able to bring him south when there are big money options elsewhere. So “names” aren’t plentiful right now. There’s not many, and what might be out there will be snapped up before you can even say “Raider Raise”.
Canberra, unlike most other clubs south of the tropics, has proven to have no qualms about looking wherever they need to for players. QCup, junior footy, overseas. The Green Machine, and Peter Mulholland in particular, are willing to look anywhere. They will again have to go searching in the same margins that brought them Siliva Havili. It’s not much but it’s honest work. And like the Raiders found out at the end of 2017, and in the recruitment of Tom Starling, it can have rewards that last beyond a single year (I already miss you Liva). The clock may be ticking, but they’ve proven in the past they know where to look. I’m keen to see the result.