Canberra’s Corona Challenge

BY DAN

In the same week that it was estimated that 100 NRL players already had coronavirus, Raiders head honcho Don Furner admitted 2022 was going to be a challenge.

Furner actually said it was going to be more onerous than previous seasons, and anyone who’s strong-willed enough to look out their window gets what he means. Forget 100 NRL players having the dastardly virus, or the 50 plus AFL players already identified, there’s literally tens of thousands of Australian’s every day picking up the bug. Thank Christ for vaccines – they’ve been the bastion that’s protected us from much worse than we face today (if only the rugby league players who received these vaccines before much of Australia recognised their privilege).

For the impact on rugby league and the Raiders we only have to look to the United States to see the impact that Omicron is having on sporting competitions there. In the National Basketball Association players are dipping in and out of ‘covid protocols’, a fancy way of saying isolation, with a frequency that is ruining my fantasy basketball team almost impossible to follow. The National Football League is similar. Head Coaches, quarterbacks, critical linemen, all missing at the drop of a hat. You wouldn’t want to do your tips too early in the week. By the time the games come around the teams are completely different. With playoffs just around the corner it’s only a matter of time before a big game is ruined because someone gets the Rona at the wrong time. It’s a crud situation, but I guess that’s life at the moment. Closer to home, the A-League and Big Bash League have been struggling to find players to field teams, and only time will tell if the NRLW and AFLW are able to manage the problem with less resources. As Donnie Boy says, it puts pressures on teams to adjust and adapt to a different scenarios. It’s never going to be easy.

The most obvious challenge is to depth. As we’ve written a few times lately in regards to Xavier Savage, regardless of whether who’s topping to the depth chart, those on the second and third tiers are still going to get plenty of game time. It’s extremely likely that players will miss time with the Rona, and players like Xavier Savage, Harry Rushton and Trey Mooney will get opportunities. Indeed it may be more like job-sharing arrangements than a depth chart this season. The Raiders have plenty of depth, and it’s a testament to the late Peter Mulholland and Ricky Stuart’s competition philosophy that the club has depth of talent in it’s second and emerging tiers to (hopefully) weather the challenge it’s facing. Either by decision or forced by circumstances, a Canberra hallmark has been to adopt a more ‘horizontal’ approach to talent distribution (i.e. more good players rather than ‘stars and scrubs’). This will serve it well in the coming season.

But this requirement of depth won’t be just of the second player in the line; it will go right down the line, a fact acknowledged by Furner. Of course the major challenge here is that many young players have essentially missed the last two years of football, with the abandonment of the NSW Cup in both of the last two years (notably the QLD Cup was not as affected, something that will be an advantage to teams with QLD based reggies – e.g. Melbourne, Brisbane, Townsville and the Titans). Without meaningful football, these players have put their development in stasis, and it means they’re less prepared than they would like to contribute in a year when they will likely be asked to provide plenty.

So what can the Milk do to manage this, and what advantages do they have at their disposal? Of course they can try to avoid the virus. Vaccination have been helpful so far (though it would be nice if the players learned a bit about them rather than pontificating on their effectiveness. Turns out football players aren’t epidemiologists. Who knew). There are advantages to being based in Canberra – there’s just less density of people, and less virus, to be exposed to.

While their environment, and the aforementioned depth will be helpful, a key factor will be the ability of the club to make the process of slotting new players in as seamless as possible. Accepting that players will come in and out this season at a greater clip than we’re used to means making sure that there is a cohesion and structure across the entire squad (including the developmental players) that will allow all players to contribute at a moment’s notice. The Raiders have two factors that should help them facilitate this.

First, if Mick Crawley’s previous time at the club is any indication, it seems likely that the Raiders will add more structure to their attack in 2022. In the years after Crawley’s departure in 2018, the team had relied more on the individual talents of its stars than set plays or structures (with the notable exception of the left side law-firm of Wighton, Whitehead and Croker). Bringing more structure to the side not only helps the immediate on field product, but could help fill-ins have a clearer idea of the roles of particular positions. Teams that have more developed attacking structures like the Roosters and the Storm have been effective at bringing in new and depth players in recent years because of injury cover. Rather than relying on the individual, this more collective approach will make it easier for the club to build cohesion, even without the advantage of time played together.

The benefit of this structured approach can build on a second advantage the Raiders have: their own team in the NSW cup. The ability to use the same systems, structures, and even set plays, means that players that come into the top squad are appropriately prepared. Of course this assumes that NSW cup occurs this year, but if it does, it’s an opportunity for Canberra to build its new on-field systems across the club.

So despite the metaphorical clouds not so much gathering as spitting hail the size of steedens down upon all of us, there are some clear pathways for the Raiders to not much avoid the storm as perhaps weather it. They won’t solve the problem they face; that’s beyond Don Furner and Ricky Stuart’s pay grade. But there are mitigations and managements they can adapt to their benefit.

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