The Canberra Raiders have a question to answer about how they want to play in the coming season. A key indicator of what their plans are will be how they use the lock position. A big body means a return to the past. They could turn on the gas and try to get as many ballplayers on the field as possible. Or they could adopt a hybrid approach, and key to that may be Adam Elliott.
For a team that seems relatively settled, there’s a few questions remaining about what the first choice 17 will look like. I say questions because we have them, but I suspect that these matters are largely settled behind closed doors this late in the pre-season (although, sometimes it’s not, like when Aidan Sezer found out three weeks before round 1 2018 he’d be shifting to hooker). We get some hints along the way as to what the answer worked out at Raiders HQ is. For example when Sticky told the Telegraph that Jarrod Croker would be given every opportunity to prove his fitness he was saying the legend’s knee (and shoulder?) would determine how long until Harley Smith-Shields is given that left centre spot. Similarly when he said that people need to give Xavier Savage time to develop, it was an admission that custodianship of the custodian position will start in the hands of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.
Working out how the Canberra Raiders are going to use their lock position this year, remains unexplained. In fact, the only hint we’ve got so far is not from the coach, but rather from Josh Hodgson, who last week spoke to Fatimah Kdouh of the Daily Telegraph. Amongst the tidbits his told her was that Trey Mooney would get a start at some point this year. He also told us that young gun Adrian Trevilyan is working to get his body in order to be able to play 13 as well as rake. It’s good news for the future of the Raiders, but by the time Trevilyan is playing regular first grade we’ll have a whole other set of questions.
It’s an important position to work out, because it will tell us so much about how the Raiders intend to play this year. For example, if it’s Ryan Sutton, Corey Horsburgh, or another prop, Sticky thinks the gap was in fitness rather than style last year, and with all the work done this off-season on conditioning, the Milk are ready to roll as is. This feels like an optimistic assessment of where the Raiders, and the game, is at after last season. Big bodies got exhausted quickly last season, and on both sides of the ball it felt like there was a need for more body variety. There may be use for playing big early in games, but I suspect those bodies will be saved to make sure the Milk’s prop rotation is reinforced.
If Sticky wants to add a bit more zhuzh to what’s happen in the middle they essentially have two options. The first we’ll call ‘all ball-play all the time’ and the second we’ll call ‘the hybrid model’. All ball-play all the time is pretty straightforward and involves a handover from last season, whereby the Raiders would bring Tom Starling on mid-way through the first half, and Josh Hodgson would move to essentially a ball-playing lock role. He provided extra width to an attack that narrowed when the hooker couldn’t send the ball 20 metres to a wide first receiver, allowing Starling to play to his strengths with his feet.
The risk here was mostly defensive, putting three smaller players on the park (Starling, Hodgson and Sam Williams) for defenses to target. Hodgson is an enthusiastic and effective defender, and Tom Starling can be brutal when he gets his shoulders under someone’s hips (which, given his height, is often). On their own they are targeted, but together (particularly with Sam Williams), it meant that if their initial contact wasn’t perfect, the Raiders had less people to help scramble to control a set. And it meant teams rolled. This might not be such of an issue with Jamal Fogarty at halfback. He’s a more accomplished defender than Sam, and may allow the extra ballplayer to have less of a negative effect. But his likely dominant role as an organiser and ballplayer may also mean that extra ballplayer could be superfluous.
However, even if the Milk don’t need creativity, there’s no doubt that there still needs to be players that can act as a linkage across the middle. Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii both have great offloads but they rarely act as linkmen. Ryan Sutton and Corey Horsburgh have done this role in the past, but if the Raiders decide they need more mobility in the middle they’ll need to look elsewhere. They have options for more mobile ball play that doesn’t require playing Josh Hodgson at lock.
Adam Elliott is one of these, and one that we think Sticky should consider. As we noted when he was signed, his passing ability and general football intelligence, and the fact that he’s mobile enough to play either middle or edge (though he hasn’t played much edge recently) means that he would be a perfect halfway house between the ‘all ball-play’ and the big man approach. Scuttlebutt out of pre-season is that he’s doing well (but then, who isn’t in pre-season).
Elliott would probably only play 40 odd minutes a game, so the question would become who you chose to complement him. There’s a flexibility here, and a roster that is able to be adjusted depending on the flow of the game. Josh Hodgson can play 13 if the Raiders are in search of points. If they’re losing the middle then one the props can get an extra shift covering that 30 minutes. It’s also worth noting this would be a perfect opportunity to give young players an introduction to the top grade. 30-35 minutes for players like Trey Mooney and/or Harry Rushton, particularly later in the season, might just be the perfect way to get them a taste.
If the style of Elliott is working the Raiders may even be able to play Elliott Whitehead at the position. Whitehead provides similar levels of “hybridity” that Adam brings. He can provide excellent ball play across the middle. His carries, though rarely barnstorming, always end with a quick play the ball. And he will not disappoint in defence (particularly when he isn’t spending his time covering from either over-eager (hi Jack!) or tiny (hi Sam!) halves). It would also provide the Raiders a way to get all of Hudson Young, Corey Harawira-Naera and Smelly in the lineup at the same time. The rub here, as we wrote when we profiled the challenge facing Whitehead, is that he doesn’t want to play in the middle.
It’s curious that Adam Elliott looms so large for the structural integrity of the Green Machine. Like Nic Cotric, he was an opportune pickup rather than a targeted acquisition. Of course some may be a bit reticent to put such a big role in the hands of someone run out of their previous club. But no one ever complained about his on-field effort, and one hopes that older heads at the club would make sure he has the space and support he needs to fit in and get his focus right off the field. As Sticky recently said, he’s on his last chance and he knows it.
But without his ability to cover the middle in a more mobile fashion, the Raiders would be left with nothing but imperfect ways to solve this riddle. Corey Harawira-Naera and Hudson Young are both best on edges. The other solutions (big and small) bring with them a host of risks that may outweigh their benefits. Elliott, an afterthought before this season, could be a big part of how Canberra approaches this season.
Now if only someone would tell us if that’s the case.
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