The Canberra Raiders and Tom Starling came to an agreement to keep the young hooker in the nation’s capital, as reported by Christian Nicolussi of the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s a no brainer of a deal that ensures the Raiders medium term future at the position is settled.
For most Starling is the future of the position at the Raiders. A dynamic runner of the ball in the Damian Cook mould, he can make an absolute mockery of a retreating A defender. This skill can be a weapon, particularly in the hyper-fatigue of V’Landysball. He is happy to share the ball, and generally provides handy service from 9. He’s also a brutal defender in a manner that befits a man much bigger than he. At just 23 there’s plenty of upside in his game, and years to develop it.
I mean just look at this try against Manly in 2021. On the back of some strong work by the Milk’s middle, Starling spots Taofofoa Sipley isolated in the A gap isolated with the B defender unusually wide.
Tom just hits the gas right at Sipley, utilises the space around him, and is gone. You’d be hard pressed to see a Hanna Barbera character disappear so quick (see kids that reference is a double entendre, because they used to do that whirly thing with their legs and then run away, but also because Hanna Barbera no longer exists – thanks for playing ‘Dan explains his old man references). It’s an elite skill, and with his ability to basically stay out of everyone’s way in attack, and not be a liability in defence, it means while he’s got legs he’ll always be a net positive.
Tom still has space for development in his game and this deal provides time and space for that to occur. At the moment his game is a simple but effective one: run it when it’s there, pass to someone else when it isn’t. Creativity and deception around the ruck isn’t his forte. Markers are engaged through the threat of run, which is awesome, but leaves an available lever off the table. His passing is also limited in length, meaning that he draws the half tight to him because he can’t hit him 25 metres away. It narrows the Raiders attack, constraining a set of options available to the side. To be at his best he needs a dominant half, and a forward pack that is creating the space for him, rather than the other way around. Good thing he has both in this side. His best periods have been supported by career periods for Josh Papalii, Joe Tapine, George Williams and Jack Wighton. But when those four were struggling last season, Starling didn’t have the capacity to pick up the slack. His three try assists were the same or less than sometimes fullbacks Bailey Simonsson (3) and Caleb Aekins (4).
The good thing is that the fact he isn’t perfect is a function of being young. There’s plenty of time to get better. He showed signs in the infamous “Baby Raiders” game, and in his pass for Josh Papalii in the Milk’s revenge win against the Roosters in July 2020, that he might be capable of more. There’s just been little space or opportunity for him to spread his wings. He is unquestionably talented, and will likely develop more creative skills around the ruck. When Wayne Bennett arrived at Souths he famously asked Damian Cook to focus less on the run and more on his ruck work – as much to sustain his body as anything. Cook has struggled to adjust, but had looked more comfortable lately. It’s not an easy transition to manage, and not one that happens quickly.
When these negotiations seemingly reached their end point before Starling’s legal issues, there was a suggestion of a mutual option for 2024. Nothing in the reporting so far has suggested whether this is still there. These options are pretty common in deals so I wouldn’t read too much into it if it is there. Potentially it allows for the young hooker to seek more money in 2024 if he performs beyond his contract. It also would allow Canberra an early out if Tom doesn’t (or continues to have legal issues). If this option is in the current version of the deal I doubt it will be exercised for those reasons. The fact the Raiders are happy to finalise this deal is a vote of confidence in the young man by the Milk. While not a comment on the seriousness of matters before the court, this deal is at least a recognition that they’re out of character for Tom.
Three years is a good amount of time for the Milk and Tom to work out what they have. It also allows time for emerging players like Adrian Trevilyan and Stanley Iongi to reveal their strengths. If Starling doesn’t develop there’s still other options. But if he does, Josh Hodgson has already noted that Trevilyan will be able to play lock too, which means his rise shouldn’t be necessarily blocked by Starling’s presence. It reflects well on Canberra that they have managed to keep such a promising pipeline of players in a key position. It’s a testament to the late great Peter Mulholland that the structure of the roster, both in the immediate, the the medium term is so settled.
This was an important deal for the Raiders to make. It’s hard to know just how high Starling’s ceiling is, but what we’ve already seen suggests the floor is high. He’s now confirmed as the future of the hooker position for the club, at least in the medium term, and suggests Canberra have a well structured roster. At a position that so many clubs have a hard time finding talent for, the Milk have hopefully locked in quality.