Jack Wighton is both cause and effect of Canberra’s situation. Both catalyst and result. The broken arm and the cast that heals it. His 2021 was terrible, but then so was the entire team’s. His ability to turn that around will go a long way to determining whether that was an aberration. Put simply, for Canberra to be good they need Jack to be good.
When he’s on he’s brutalist architecture personified. Raw effectiveness. The ball needs to go over the line, so he’ll run in a direct path to get there. If someone is in the way that’s their problem. Fuck style points, the Raiders need scoreboard points. Jack doesn’t get them. He just takes them.
But then sometimes he looks as lost as a fish trying to drive a car. Balls hit the ground, kicks find the first row rather than grass. Tackles that are often destructive come a moment late, and he’s left with a look on his face that does anything but instill confidence. In these moments he becomes both leader and passenger. The master of the Raiders fortunes, and Hamlet whining about the injustice of it all. He sulks on the left, edging further and further away from the action. Instead of the man that can simply decide to win the Milk a game (like he did against the Warriors in late 2020), he becomes the closest fan to the football.
The exciting thing about him is he’s so effective while still having so much room for development. Everyone knows about his running – a cool 100 metres a pop from five-eighth is always handy – but it’s more how he gets his metres. Carries skittle defenders, create momentum, and allow the play after the freedom to be attacking in space, ironically the exact kind of situation he excels in. In 2020 he had 13 tries, more than any other six in the competition. His passing on the left can be electric. He targets that edge, allowing his running to draw defenders’ attention, and put him in position for simple run/pass decision tree. When things are going well it feels like he makes the right choice every time. 29 try involvements in 2020 and 21 in 2019 were both highs for the Raiders. Even in a down year in 2021 he had 23 try involvements.
He’s already elite in these skills and in the physicality of his defence, but there’s still areas to improve, and that should be exciting pathway to improvement for the Raiders. Primarily these opportunities lie in decision making and execution. Too often in 2021 he seemed predetermined to throw the cut out pass to the winger on leftwards shifts. Other times he seemed to forget his strength in running the ball (see the fact that his running metres were down by a fifth on 2020 or 2019). Other times his fingers were made of cheese, and he forgot how to catch or kick, turning over possession, particularly when under pressure. 24 errors in 2021 were second in the side, and seven kicks dead were six more than any other regular starter. His six kicking errors led the club last season (only six right? It felt like a ball flew in the second row every other week).
The key for Canberra, and for Jack, is finding a way to make sure his best is the norm, and that those occasions where get off-kilter are fewer and far between. It’s easier said than done. They’ve made the job as easy as possible for him, allowing him to play many of the same shapes, and make the same decisions as he did as a fullback. They’ve utilised other spine members to do the organisation, allowing Jack to play ‘eyes up’ footy (or more accurately, a more restricted role with a decision tree to match his skill-set). He’s gotten to hide out on the left. And he’s been protected from criticism when others have been dragged through the media. All these steps have worked before, but what’s the next step, both for Wighton and the Raiders to make sure he delivers?
It’s easy to forget that Jack is still relatively inexperienced in his position. Partly that’s because he’s been in our life for so long (he made his first grade debut alongside current assistant coach Brett White back in 2012). It’s also a function of the fact that his shift from fullback to five-eighth, though short-lived, has been such a resounding success. He’s proven himself immediately effective, so long as the gameplay as been shaped to his skill-set. I doubt he’ll ever be more than he currently is in terms breadth of role, but the more experience he gets at six the less we should see less errors in his game. Indeed we saw a similar trajectory when he was fullback: the longer he was in the position the less errors he made. Here’s hoping in 2022 we see this. It could be the best pathway to maximising his potential.
Coach Stuart thinks it’s about making sure that Jack is having fun again. It’s hard to see how that could hurt, but it’s also not clear if that is Jack’s cause or effect. Is he having fun because things are going well, or if he has fun with the rest follow? It’s not a particularly sophisticated approach, but then I’ve never coached a team to a premiership. It’s also worth pointing out if Wighton’s role and expectations were going to change, I suspect Sticky wouldn’t be telling the media in any depth right now.
A more detailed approach might suggest taking the training wheels off and expanding Wighton’s involvements. With Tom Starling’s laissez faire approach at ruck more prominent this year, and Jamal Fogarty likely to take control of the side’s organisation, the role for Jack could be loosened to allow greater influence. I’d love to see him play at first receiver more often, and not be scared to attack defences closer to the ruck, rather than slinking out past the edge. There’s not a defender in the competition that would like to face him one-on-one. Quite often he has the least touches of the Raiders halves; perhaps that balance needs to shift somewhat. That can’t be supported if he makes errors, handling or otherwise.
But more than this what has worked in the past has been the simplicity of his role. While that he can be brought from reduced spacial influence (i.e. hanging out on the left edge), it can also be brought through the greater clarity of structures. Canberra’s 2019 and 2020 attacks, in which Wighton thrived, were simple. The version that fuelled the 2016 run was more complex, and he was equally successful. It’s less about a simple role, but rather a clear one. Mick Crawley has a lot on his plate.
Bubbling away underneath this is Wighton’s interest in a new deal. We wrote about this last year, but following a pattern he first used in 2019, Wighton has not taken up his option for 2023. It means he can renegotiate his deal for more money (or take up the option later should things not go well). Back in 2019 this was a mechanism a new manager used to get a longer deal (and importantly a bit of that sweet commission that comes with a new deal). This time a new, new manager is doing to exact thing. Jack is already paid more at Canberra (something north of 750K that some have suggested can end at 900k with incentives) than he’d get elsewhere, so this is more about showing the club. Unlike 2019 though, Wighton’s hasn’t helped his cause, at least in terms of his most recent evidence on the park.
Everyone’s incentives are aligned. The Raiders need to do what they can to get Jack to perform at his best. Wighton needs to do that if he’s intent on getting a new deal (and, again, that sweet, sweet commission for his new manager). There’s less pressure but more riding on this year for Wighton. Let’s hope he delivers.
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