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 VI. You can read part I on Corey Horsburgh here, part II on Emre Guler here, part III on Elliott Whitehead here, part IV on Jarrod Croker here, and part V on Xavier Savage here.
Ryan Sutton’s contract ends this year and the Raiders need to work out how they can keep him. Scuttlebutt that he might leave persists, and it isn’t tempered by his most recent statements. If Canberra are going to keep him, they’ll need to decide if they can find the space to carry three big money middle forwards; something which flies in the face of recent wisdom about the changing game.
Ryan Sutton came to Canberra highly-touted but unproven. He looked like a hard-running unit, the kind that would skittle defenders with barnstorming runs. But the reality has been different. He isn’t a brute – he had the least post-contact metres per carry that any Raider middle that got major minutes in 2021. Instead he has been the prototypical workhorse. His first carry and his last carry bearing the same effort, and he is indefatigable in defence. In 2021 he made almost as many tackles per minute as players playing less than half the minutes he did, and played far and away the most minutes per game of the regular middles. He’s may as well be made of iron.
Indeed he has been a perfect V’Landysball forward. He’s never tired, he’s able to get up and make repeat efforts in defence, and he is critical in keeping together a ruck defence that has otherwise collapsed into chaos. If his carry hasn’t been dominant, it’s always strong enough, and his passing through the middle is underrated. He would be a perfect foil for the more powerful Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii as part of a Cerberus-style prop rotation for the Milk .
Unfortunately in recent times rumours spoke in dark corners have consistently suggested he’s looking to Sydney. We’ve never spoken about these utterings in these pages because they have always been just that, and he’s never done anything publicly that’s suggested he might be ambivalent about god’s country. As we said recently, no news on contract negotiations isn’t the negative it may have been in the past. There’s a host of external challenges, as well as specific circumstances for individuals, that may have delayed contract negotiations.
But our hopes that Sutton would be sticking around were not buoyed by this quote reported by the Canberra Times:
I really just want to concentrate on having a good preseason. You can really get distracted by that stuff. If the Raiders want to move or if other things are there, I don’t know, I’ve just got to make sure I concentrate on myself and what’s going on in the present rather than thinking about the futureRyan Sutton to the Canberra Times
It’s hardly a ringing endorsement but it’s also not a rejection. It’s a single ambivalent comment. It’s just as likely he’s just a footballer who didn’t 100 per cent hit this quote out of the park, or more likely, he’s been told by his manager to play lukewarm to ensure Canberra come the full distance when it comes to money in the contract. But it’s enough to suggest there’s work to be done on this front if he’s going to stay with the Green Machine.
This means the Raiders face an important question. They are already playing two middles big money. Surrounding them they have a host of (relatively) cheap support players. They have a pipeline of young players like Trey Mooney, Peter Hola, Harry Ruston, JJ Clarkson and Ata Mariota desperate for opportunities. They’ve got a number of more experienced players on cheap or long-term contracts that may be best suited to playing in the middle (Adam Elliott, whomever out of Corey Harawira-Naera and Elliott Whitehead doesn’t play on the edge, Emre Guler also exists).
So in addition to the question to whether Sutton wants to stay at the Raiders, there’s a question of what the extent is that Canberra will go to keep him. There’s an opportunity cost going all out to keep Sutton. It means less daylight for others. It also means less money to spend elsewhere, such as in ensuring the deals of the emerging middles, or on extending Joe Tapine (able to negotiate a new deal from 1 November 2022) or the host of middles likewise off contract. They will need to be sure he’s here for the long-term as the leader of the next generation of forwards when Josh Papalii eventually retires. That all makes a host of factors that could give the club cold feet. For a player perfectly suited to Vlandysball, there’s a roster than could be over-weighted towards keeping middles that aren’t necessarily game changers. But then losing Sutton because the club has paid less deserving prospects feels counter-productive.
This will not be an easy negotiation. Sutton may decide his life and earning power is best suited elsewhere, and more power to him if that’s the case. But before they let that happen, Canberra need to work out just how far they’ll go to keep him.
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