Some truly heartbreaking news was confirmed out of the Canberra Raiders pre-season, with confirmation that Harley Smith-Shields had torn his Anterior Cruciate Ligament and would likely miss the season. After last year’s annus horribilis, it’s hardly the start to a new season full of hopes of redemption that most were after.
It must be so frustrating for Smith-Shields. It’s felt like he’s on the cusp of big minutes in the top grade for the last few years, He is such a talent; a man with the body, the quick feet and the footy smarts to not just succeed at first grade, but push for representative selection. The only thing that has stopped him testing those waters over the last two years have been freak injuries. First a torn bicep, now a torn ACL. In between these injuries he’s shown plenty of upside; breaking tackles at will (nearly 3.5 a game, which put him just behind Jordan Rapana and Matt Timoko on a per game basis in 2021), taking metres easily (average 124 per game) and doing so with a higher tackle efficiency (87% per NRL.com) than most of the Milk’s other outside backs.
In short, he was ready this year, and that makes this injury so much more heartbreaking. It’s beyond cruel for fate to do this to a player ready to have it all. And for it to happen this year is the cruelest of all. Between coronavirus and the slightest of openings at his preferred left centre position, it’s almost certain that Smith-Shields would have got plenty of opportunities this season. The diagnoses so far suggests his season is done, and that would be crushing for the young man. Our heart goes out to him.
For the Milk it means more emphasis will be put on Jarrod Croker’s health, because suddenly the depth chart behind him is less clear. Xavier Savage has played centre in SG Ball but as Sticky told the Daily Telegraph, he’s a fullback and winger first. If there were concerns about his physical capability to match up at those positions, that will only be exacerbated at centre, where he would be asked to do a lot of work against opposition backrows and big backs. Protection from Jack Wighton and Nic Cotric would make this more manageable, but it’s hardly an ideal situation to try and cover for a centre.
If Seb Kris loses out to Matt Timoko on the right he would be an option here. He showed he’s a strong line runner in 2021, but he doesn’t have a lot of lateral mobility, and often got stood up by anyone with a bit of agility and quick feet. Jordan Rapana has played centre before, and he could be replaced by Xavier Savage or Semi Valemei on the wing. But Rapa nearly destroyed his body playing that role in 2020, and it would be a risk to hope his body will hold up two years later. The funniest option would be Cotric shifting one in to play left centre, fulfilling his desire to play centre after the Raiders said he wasn’t suited to it. After that it’s into the development and train and trial players like Elijah Anderson (who I would never rule out), but it’s hardly the rolled gold certainty of Harley Smith-Shields). That is to say it’s Jarrod Croker first and then questions. Instead of it being “does Jarrod have anything left?” the question may become “can he hold on?”. That’s a big change from the way people have been talking about his knee and shoulder.
None of these options are Harley though. Whoever they choose the Raiders are losing either strength, agility, speed or dynamism. Putting all their eggs in the basket of someone of whom there has been ‘medically retired’ chatter never feels like the safest approach, no matter how much of a club legend he is (and he’s a pretty big one). They’ve lost a potential weapon.
It’s obviously not a season-ender for the club. This year more than ever, the depth of teams is going to be tested, but this certainly accelerates the trial. All the players noted above will do a job, and perhaps a dark horse like Elijah Anderson, given opportunity, can prove himself to be the next GI as the late great Peter Mulholland suggested. But that’s the optimism of desperation speaking. There’s no doubt this is massive blow for the club.
It will put both Canberra and Smith-Shields in a potentially interesting place come the end of the season. As his contract runs out after 2023, he’s eligible to negotiate an extension at 1 November this season. Instead of having a good idea of what Smith-Shields is capable of at the top level (or from Smith-Shields perspective, without extensive tape of his succeeding in first grade), it means both parties will be negotiating a little blind if they seek the resolve a deal before the start of the 2023 season. The Raiders may want to wait and see in 2023, but that risks are Smith-Shields getting pilfered by another club. The Milk should take the opportunity to show faith in him.
This is a obstacle, there is no doubt, but it is one that both Harley and the Raiders (band name?) can recover from. But for now it’s nothing but sadness for the Milk and Smith-Shields. Here’s hoping both parties can overcome this setback as quickly as possible.
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