Doing Things by Half

BY DAN

As part of revealing their top 30 for 2022, the Canberra Raiders confirmed something we’ve all known for months: they would be carrying five halves in their squad. At first glance it’s confusing. When you’re limited to 30 players, why waste so much of your limited resources on positions that, if all goes well, you’ll only need two of?

After all, while it’s the same number they had in 2021, it’s more than they’ve had in the top 30 at any point before that in the Stuart era. They had four in 2020, three or four in 2019 (depending on whether you think Ata Hingano was a half, a hooker or a winger), four in 2018, three and Jordan Turner (remember him?) in 2017 and four in 2016.

It was fortunate because it turns out they were all needed last year. All five halves played first grade footy for the Raiders in 2021 – although young gun Brad Schneider’s appearance was barely 1.5 Subloos – and so the move proved prescient. But it’s not every year your starting halfback walks out the door. And in the past the Raiders have managed without needing stockpiles of specialists to manage (such as when Elliott Whitehead has filled in at half).

The big change in last season’s roster, and for next year’s, isn’t to do with first grade need but rather club requirements. With a dedicated second tier team Canberra need cover not just for the top line, but also the reserves. Suddenly three or four halves isn’t going to cut it. You need dedicated pair to play full minutes each week in reserves grade. In that circumstance carrying a fifth half feels precautionary rather than excessive.

Of course, the real challenge isn’t the quantity it’s the quality [insert awful joke here]. The Raiders have their starters, Wighton and Fogarty, the youth movement in Schneider, and two veterans of differing levels of wiliness. In the past they’ve managed to handle a situation by subsidising their own roster with that of the Mounties or the Magpies and through halves on development/youth deals. That’s the major change here.

Instead of carrying one season veteran and a few scattered youth options, they’ve got two players who are purely there for certainty. Both Williams and Frawley are known quantities – players with experience a raised level of worst case scenario. But if there’s a low ‘floor’ to their performance, then their upside, or ‘ceiling’, is more suitable to a building for ants. But that’s kinda the point – provide surety of input should there be an issue at the top-end, and old head experience to shape the youth around them.

According to the excellent humans at the Green Machine Podcast, Sammy also provides value in the film room (which sounds like a euphemism). This is important given the financial constraints the Raiders, and rugby league more generally, are facing in the face of the ‘rona. We’ve noted before that people like Sam and Sia Soliola‘s importance increased during the pandemic because of their ability to fill pseudo-coaching roles in the club. That importance is perhaps less neccessary in a more open world, but nonetheless is of value.

There remains a risk to this approach though. Carrying Williams and Frawley presents potential opportunity costs for the Green Machine. Every minute they play together in Cup footy is a moment that Brad Schneider isn’t developing his game. It’s also means Schneider is less likely to get exposure at the top level (as Stuart has painted his colours to the mast in 2021 on who he’d prefer to fill in for Origin, or injury).

There also needs to be an acknowledgement that carrying Williams and Frawley means there’s talented footballers who won’t be on Canberra’s roster next year that could have used the opportunity. Given the big names you can think of that have been found of the proverbial scrap-heap, missing an opportunity to have another flyer on the roster is a noteworthy downside (though, given how things have gone recently, keeping stable people on the roster has its own appeal). It’s even more clear when those extra half positions exist at the expense of support at positions with less depth, most obviously hooker.

I suspect the way this plays out is that Williams and Schneider share the Cup right side half position over the season, transferring ownership over the season as Schneider gets more time, and it becomes less necessary that Williams’ body is match fit. This gives the young half time to build the match fitness and football reps he’s so missed over the past two years of interrupted lower grade footy. It also means Williams’ physical reserves, which always seem to wear down over time, aren’t exposed too much, too early.

Whether this is the right approach will only be clear in the wash. I think it leans to heavy on veterans where a youth approach might render more value. But as 2021 showed, sometimes things go so pear-shaped it’s not fair to shove developing players into the maelstrom and hope for a different response. Regardless of your preferred approach, we can all agree that’s the best outcome would be not to need them at all.

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