We need to talk about: Elliott Whitehead

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 “We need to talk about” series. This is part III. You can read part I on Corey Horsburgh here, and part II on Emre Guler here.

BY DAN

For the best part of six years Elliott Whitehead has been destroying himself physically for the good of the people’s rugby league team, the Canberra Raiders.

At one point he’d played 116 of 117 possible games (and the game his missed was through suspension). He’d only rested 113 minutes across those 116 matches. Each season he is at the top in tackles (with Josh Hodgson). He has seemed indestructible; capable of putting his body through hell, and still performing. It didn’t matter the position. Edge, middle, halves, centre; if Tom Starling misses a moment or a game(s) this year and the Raiders need a makeshift rake, I reckon he’d give it a shot (don’t do him like that Stick).

But 2021 was the first time it seemed to be taking its toll. He made his lowest number of tackles for the season and missed his second highest proportion of them since he joined the club. He did his usual work covering for everyone else, but he felt more singularly vulnerable than previously. His running numbers were at their lowest in both aggregate and average. He only had four try assists, which was evidence of less involvement in attack, and a reduced ability of either Raiders’ edge to offer anything in attack other than singling out an edge runner on a single defender in space. Where Whitehead had spent precious years working as part of a well-oiled left edge that provided the Milk’s only threatening structured play, that was almost non-existent last season.

Perhaps it was the irresponsible rule changes pursued in haste over the last two seasons – they wore on players that played big minutes the most, especially ones that covered for all their teammates brazen faults, like a towel grabbed at the last minute when the bathroom door isn’t locked. Perhaps it was more symbol of the Raiders malaise. He was shifted left to right last year because Hudson Young was better on the left, Corey Harawira-Naera couldn’t (or wouldn’t sometimes) cover for the target on Sam Williams’ back. He played halfback at a moments notice because that’s what the team needed. And then he took on board the captaincy at perhaps the most chaotic point in recent club history – as other leaders were either fighting (Josh Hodgson and Stuart) or unable to stay on the field (Jarrod Croker).

But perhaps he wore down. So many minutes. So many tackles. So much strain put on a body that is now well into his 30s. Two seasons with less break because of Covid and finals. More was being asked of him both physically and mentally. And something eventually gave. He missed three games with injury – which may as well have been a million. The 21 games he played was the least he’d played in any season (even the Covid shortened one) since he joined the club. The Raiders got to see how other options looked at edge, and in moments – like the Sharks game – and for the first time since the 2019 pre-season there are questions to be asked about what the best options on the edge are.

Now Canberra needs to fit three players best suited to the edge into two spots. Hudson Young continues to go from strength to strength, showing evidence of some handy ballskill in 2021 to go with his established and improving defensive acumen and strong running. His trajectory is up and suggests that he will settle into the left side edge spot he held at the end of last season for some time now. Corey Harawira-Naera showed moments of brilliance together with moments of defensive diffidence. He added a punishing edge runner that could not only hit a line but also be a one-on-one matchup advantage on an edge the Raiders hasn’t seen since Taps and Papa moved to the middle. Harawira-Naera’s offering in particular is in stark contrast to Whitehead’s. He doesn’t cover others faults in defence. He’s smart line runner who can set up second-phase play with a skilful offload. He’s not going to be a secondary ball-player outside the half, and in structured play his offering is line running and that’s it.

So Canberra have to make a choice. Defence or attack. Attacking structure or brutal bombast. How do they reconcile these tensions? More importantly how they do so when their captain is at the centre of them? For me keeping Whitehead at the edge is the best solution, allowing him to utilise his ballplaying skills to great affect. The fact that Whitehead will likely be always available (whereas Harawira-Naera may not for….ahem…reasons) will also make him attractive in building a partnership that allows new guy Jamal Fogarty, and emerging power runner Matt Timoko, the certainty and connection to thrive on both sides of the ball. With Mick Crawley – and a more structured and adventurous attack – in tow for 2022, you’ll need time and skills to play footy on the edge. As my people over at Gainline Analytics point out all the time – cohesion and connection of relationships built over time is how you win. Defensively, even less awesome last year, Whitehead has the kind of cool-head and unending motor necessary to make the hardest decisions in the game (and I don’t remember the last time he just stood there and watched his halfback get embarrassed). It seems to me that this is the plan the Raiders will be taking forward, but well, I am not Coach Stuart, and actual people who know things are yet to investigate this.

I am just one man holding a stereo above his head in the rain. Other astute observers see Harawira-Naera’s work is best done on the edge (which is true). They see the ability he has to break tackles at will and create second-phase play as highly valued in under the current shemozzle rules. Elliott would bring major minutes in the middle, adding passing there that the Milk will no longer get from Josh Hodgson (please don’t go), robust defence, as well as retaining the ability to cover every goddamn position in the pack, the halves and some positions in the back line.

You could also mix and match an approach with Whitehead starting at the edge and shifting to the middle to accommodate Harawira-Naera off the bench, but that goes against the cohesion ethos I espoused earlier, and seems too fancy for Sticky’s taste. Regardless, if the plan is for Whitehead to move to the middle, he probably (hopefully?) knows about it now (I guess Aidan Sezer didn’t know about a similar move until January), because the defensive efforts in the middle are a different beast, especially in the opening minutes of the game. At his age, after last year, with two more contracted years after this one, well, it would be risking the man’s future for the Raiders current.

Even though it’s a different challenge than it was a few years ago, it would again be asking Whitehead to put his body in a blender for the Canberra Raiders rugby league team. And he’d do it because his spirit is indomitable. If they go down this path, here’s hoping the flesh is still willing.

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