The Prodigal Son Returns?

BY DAN

Nic Cotric might be coming home.

As if 2021 couldn’t get any weirder, it emerged from Dean Ritchie at the Daily Telegraph Wednesday evening that Cotric was being heavily shopped by the Bulldogs, and that the Raiders were his preferred landing spot.

F*cking wild.

Cotric left Canberra because of money and because he wanted to play centre. Now he’s willing to come home to play winger, and reports are that Canberra and the Dogs are already talking how much money Canterbury will front on the last two years of his 3 year $1.8m deal. Given the Raiders let him go over what at the time seemed to be a relatively small amount of money (most scuttlebutt pointed to the two parties being as little as 50k apart), it seems like under this scenario the Raiders would be getting Cotric back for less than they wanted to pay for him barely 18 months ago.

Talk about the return of the prodigal son. What was dead is now alive. What was lost is now found. Get the fatted calf. It’s time to celebrate.

Cotric is still a talent to behold. He led the Bulldogs in tackle breaks last season despite only playing 14 games. His average of 4 a game would have put him second behind Jordan Rapana on the Raiders last year. The Milk desperately missed players with the ability to break a tackle last year, and here is one falling in their lap. He’s also safe under the high ball, and gets through plenty of work in yardage. He’s a perfect winger in the modern game. He likely walks into the starting side on the opposite wing to Jordan Rapana, and suddenly between those two and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad the Green Machine will have the back three to complete exit sets as good as any in the competition. The forwards will be happy.

Getting Origin level talent on a whim isn’t something that normally happens for the Raiders so you can understand their interest in getting a deal done. It’s plug and play stuff. He knows the system. He knows the environment. He knows how to fit in. It also helps future proof the back five, bringing in a sure-thing winger who’s only 23 to potentially be the rock the next generation of backs orbit around after Jordan Rapana and Jarrod Croker move on. He’s young, he’s already Origin level, and he might well get better. What more can you want?

But it’s not without risks. Cotric’s arrival would potentially put an obstacle in front of other young talent coming through. Instead of Xavier Savage competing with Bailey Simonsson for the wing spot, he’s in all likelihood not playing every week in the top-line. That may be better for his long-term development; he’s young, and he needs more time developing physically and getting used to playing against men. After all, he went from SG Ball to cup footy to first grade last season, and he’s still 19. I can understand the Raiders thinking it’s not a bad outcome if he plays more Cup footy in 2022. It does however make me worry that teams might start sniffing around the prodigious talent with promises of guaranteed playing time (not to mention the Milk missing his pace in 2022).

Simonsson also suffers a set back. He’s been a jack of all trades for the Raiders in recent years, and never really made a spot his own. This makes it that much harder, and may put pressure on him to look elsewhere (I’d be curious if the cap-strapped Eels would be sniffing around him after this). Similarly while Harley Smith-Shields will likely be competing with Jarrod Croker for the left centre spot, this means there’s no fall back if he doesn’t win that battle. In the end Canberra might trot out some version of their 2019 back five in a competition that is less suited to them.

It also raises questions about where the Raiders are spending their cap. Assuming the Dogs cover a bit but not all of Cotric’s wage, it’s still a hefty investment in an area that you either had mostly cheap (Nicoll-Klokstad) or young (and therefore cheap) talent. The advantage that a side can get from maxing out the cap-value of youth is obviously time limited. By bringing Cotric back into the fold, they’re potentially paying big money for a talented back, when they could be paying peanuts for a less refined version of the same product. Combine that with the fact that Raiders have five halves in their top 30 and it can start to feel like a pretty lopsided roster. But given how cheap they got Jamal Fogarty (reportedly just over 300k a year), given Hodgson is likely off the cap soon (or at the very least at the end of 2022), given they spent so much effort in 2020 and 2021 locking up their squad for the medium term, it might not actually matter (though it does make me wonder if finding the money to pay Nic would be the domino that pushes Josh Hodgson out the door).

A deal is also no sure thing. Ritchie’s report suggested discussions were so progressed with Canberra because Nic didn’t like the idea of playing for Wests. But if other teams get a whiff of a star like Cotric being available, they’ll come asking questions, promising time, money, and I dunno, beaches or some shit. It may almost be a done deal, but nothing in rugby league is sure.

It’s a fascinating and flabbergasting outcome. No one had this on their 2021 off-season dance card. But here are the Canberra Raiders, after a shithouse year, now with potentially too much talent in the backline. This is one of the good problems to have. And after a gap year in Bankstown the prodigal son might be coming home.

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