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, part II on Emre Guler here, part III on Elliott Whitehead here, and part IV on Jarrod Croker here.
Xavier Savage’s best position is on the field.
Being more specific than that is a problem the Raiders are yet to solve.
The thing is it’s pretty clear that Xavier is a unique talent. He’s got wheels – we all know that. He’s so quick that Phil Gould might lose his mind if he ever managed to watch a Raiders game (he’s the fastest man on the planet!!!). But he’s not just got that sweet, sweet straight line speed. He’s agile. Watch this try again – he dances through a bevy of defenders like how I think I dance after too many rumballs. He sees things that most other players have had trained out of them.
More than once I’ve seen him put a grubber kick through the line and back his pace to get to the ball first. That’s the kind of improvisational football (eyes up!) that hasn’t been seen in Canberra since BJ Leilua BJ Leilua’d his way out of the club.
But where is his game best suited? He career on the come up doesn’t provide a clue. In SG ball he spent most of his time at centre. In reggies and first grade he’s played at fullback. What better way to develop your game than by being constantly around the ball, with full flexibility to test the extents of your creativity and speed while not being targeted for punishment by every edge forward in the competition? It’s a hint at long term position for Savage, but by no means is it definitive.
Indeed most outlets have settled on fullback for Savage (update: as has Sticky, at least in the long term), both in the long and short term. It makes sense. You want to get him the ball as much as possible. Outside of yardage and halves, fullback is the position that gets the ball the most. Set him free and watch him create. It would add a threat around the ball that would complement Tom Starling’s game and the importance of second-phase at in V’Landysball. Anytime an edge defender gets caught in a ruck, Tom and X would terrorise the half or prop forced to fill in at the A defender. It would open up some space for the players wider, as defensive eyes shift in wards to track where Savage is.
But fullback is more than just having fun. It’s a physical and mental challenge that is often underestimated. We saw this last year, when the absence of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad revealed just how much the club relied on him for organisation and coverage at the back. The Milk were an elite defence with him at the back, and without him they were average. You can read here and here if you want to see by how much, but below gives a hint of just how much better Canberra’s defence was with Nicoll-Klokstad at the helm than all other options.
In his two games at the back, Savage contributed to a defence that was the best of all non-CNK options (this included Rapana at the back because of Savage shifting around in the Sharks game after he proper hurt himself), but with Nicoll-Klokstad (and the Raiders) in full flight early in the season, the defence was at its finest.
Of course, there’s more to these numbers than just the fullback. Caleb Aekins no doubt played his part, but Canberra’s fitness and cohesion was found out over his time at fullback. All sets of numbers are small sample sizes, which means a dropped ball (or not) here and there means a big difference in them. Charnze’s numbers in the above only account for his first shift (and leave out the last few games of the season – the points per set rose to around 0.4 after those games). But the point is that defence is a big part of being a fullback. A lot of it is organisational and positional. Nicoll-Klokstad is elite at that.
And some comes down to physical ability. As we said, Savage is still physically developing, and it’s unfair to put the expectations of a fully developed body on him. Compare Nicoll-Klokstad cleaning up the messes of the Raiders defence against the Titans:
And then again minutes later.
And here Savage doing his best to against the Sharks.
There’s no difference in will. No difference in positioning. Just the mere fact that Savage’s body is still developing and he’s simply not as strong as Charnze. Yet.
Nicoll-Klokstad also made his name with unending hit ups, in yardage and in forward sets. He took over the role that BJ Leilua had played in the past, bustling through tackles as the third hit up in a set after the two props. He’s hardly prop size, but his strength and agility meant that the middle forwards could get a rest. Savage remains a threat to break one every time he gets the ball, but against an organised defence his body isn’t as effective at the grunt work. Witness the paltry 28 post contact metres in his first start against the Sea-Eagles. They targeted him with kicks and forced Jordan Rapana into protecting him for the entirety of the game.
Putting this stress on a developing body is a risk, (and one acknowledged by Coach Stuart). It’s hard not to notice that Savage suffered a soft tissue injury in just his second start. It’s not conclusive proof that his body isn’t ready for the top line but it does indicate that care must be taken to not wear him out with lack of prudence and patience. Fullback requires a lot of physical work on both sides of the ball. If Canberra are ready to start him there from round one next season I hope they’ve made it with that in mind.
For a moment it appeared like there may be an obvious spot for him on the wing. It wouldn’t have put him under the same physical strain as fullback would. Even though he’d be defending in the front line, he’d almost never be an A defender (where fullback’s often find themselves, particularly in goal line sets as the target for middles on crash balls). He’d still be asked to carry back kicks and do yardage work, but as Josh Addo-Carr and others have proved, quick feet can be as useful in yardage as broad shoulders. He could have been given the opportunity to ‘float’ in specific sets, as the Green Machine have allowed Rapana on occasion (shouts to Max for that idea). It wouldn’t have been perfect but it would have been an opportunity to ease his body into top flight footy. Alas Nic Cotric’s return, and Jordan Rapana’s 2021 put paid to that option.
It’s a sad fact that the pernicious nature of the coronavirus (update: and the crushing horror of Harley Smith-Shields injury) will almost certainly ensure that while no clear immediate position is available, opportunity will be plentiful. Savage may get time at multiple backline spots. The optimist in me hopes this means the Raiders can look at where he best fits, and allow him breath of development rather than trying to tie him to a style of play or position so early in his development. The sky is the limit, and making him play a particular role may risk limiting him. This won’t allow him to be the saviour many see him as, and it won’t provide him with the short term certainty that would ward off prying eyes from the north that will come once he’s eligible 1 November this year. But it’s more patient, and to me says the organisation isn’t chasing redemption through the feet of a 19 year old boy.
Ultimately though ones view on this is more likely to be determined by what they thought of 2021 rather than what they want for 2022. If you saw 2021 as the collapse of a (short-lived) empire, then perhaps you’re more keen for the miracle that will bring it all back. If you think the foundations are still strong then perhaps you’re willing to be more patient with precocious talent.
Only time will tell where the Raiders fall on this spectrum. If they do pursue salvation through Savage I hope they’re clear that he can handle the physical challenge, and are sure of what the best use of his talent is. As I said I’m not sure what the best position on the field is, but I’m sure whatever chance he’s given he’ll make the most of it.