A New Groove

BY DAN

All summer we’ve wondered how the Raiders would answer a series of questions. Most prominent among them has been the make up of their edge forwards. Canberra finally gave us a hint: Elliott Whitehead will yet again step up for the club to fill a new role he’d prefer not to. And with this change in personnel could come a different philosophy for 2022.

The first public hint of the make up of their back row to the Canberra Times on the weekend came courtesy of Corey Horsburgh (because of course it did), who told David Polkinghorne of Whitehead:

He’s been swapping and changing [between the middle and edge], but I reckon he’ll be in the middles this year – a bit of experience,

The Red Horse

We should note it’s hardly definitive. Horsburgh strikes me as the kind of guy who likes telling a yarn that may stretch from the truth a little (although it’s worth noting the Polkinghorne later told both The Green Machine Podcast’s Matt and Tim Gore from Raiders Review with Blake and the Pork to “put the chips on 13”). It wouldn’t be the first time the Milk have mooted a substantial shift for a player only for it not to survive the trials. Horsburgh himself is a great example of this – at the start of 2020 he was meant to moving to right edge to cover for the injured John Bateman. It didn’t last – mostly because Horsburgh looked ill-suited to the shift. And it’s not hard to think of examples where players have made major shifts, and no one knew about them until right before the season started like Aidan Sezer to hooker (god it makes me sad just writing it). So it’s worth being wary of position changes announced out the side of a prop’s mouth in February.

But unlike Sezer and the Red Horse (someone call Marvel. I’d watch that), Whitehead has obvious capacity to cover in the middle. For starters he played there before for Canberra, though not since 2018. Most commentators (including these pages) had flagged this as at least a possibility at the end of last season. The structural shift of the game in 2021 also supports it, with the Milk pushing towards more pace in the middle, though only time will tell if it’s suits 2022. For his part Smelly will bring a seemingly endless motor, quality defence and an ability to win quick rucks in the middle. His ball play around the ruck will add the second phase play that has taken on an even greater weight under V’Landysball, and will bring width to the attack when Josh Hodgson’s 25m rifles from dummy-half are riding the pine.

The word has always been that he hates playing in the middle. I presume because it’s a different challenge to playing on the edge. The space that a middle forward plays in is smaller, and the opportunities for creative or structured attack are limited. In short it’s less fun. But more importantly, a middle forward has to make more tackles. Given he usually either tops or is second to Hodgson in tackles, one might be tempted to write-off this concern. But it’s not so much the quantity but the nature of the beasts that must be corralled in the middle. A change like this would be intriguing at this stage of his career. Would the reduced minutes prolong his career? Or could the increased physicality present yet another physical load for a Whitehead to bear. All Elliott does is make sacrifices for the Raiders. Just chalk another one up and hope that the football gods recognise his service.

It obviously changes the maths of how the Raiders fill out the rest of their edges, and here is where it gets fun. One would hope that Young is given all the time he needs to make the left edge spot his. He’s only 23 and still developing, but he already more consistent on both sides of the ball than any other option the Milk have. He averaged 103m a game from the edge in 2021 (19m a game more than Harawira-Naera), had 64 tackle breaks for the season, 3.3 a game and second in the club (Harawira-Naera averaged 2.9 a game for reference). Defensively his efficiency (93%) was elite, and outside a few bad reads was generally water-tight. He’s got plenty of upside too, showing developing ball play skills, elite agility in the line and good pace. His relationship with Tom Starling is also worth building on.

The position that most likely opens up is right edge backrower. Corey Harawira-Naera played most of his season there in 2021 and one would expect him to get first shot if Whitehead is vacating the edges. His an elite line runner who’s ability to find a hole is as stark as his sometimes forgetful defence (as in, he forgets he has to do it). Rumour has it Adam Elliott has also spending time on the edge, which is surprising given how much of his football has been in the middle, but he has the agility to make it work there (though, we think he’d be well used at 13 too). Given Elliott’s superior ability to cover both middle and edge, it may be that he does so from the bench. It raises questions as to what happens with Hodgson. If he’s not going to play much lock (because, presumably between the Elliott’s, those minutes are taken), and then club is keen to move to Starling, one wonders what his role will be going forward. We’ll be watching that closely.

Regardless of who fills the gap, moving Whitehead represents a philosophical change from recent periods of success. Their success over 2019-20 had been built on dramatic improvements in defence (such as the addition of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and John Bateman in 2019). This would be a shift to include (hopefully) more punch on the edge and more ball-play in the middle; less reliance on an extra creator on the edge. Hopefully it means more points, more efficiently. The risk, obviously, is in defensive effectiveness. One may suggest that it’s a risk worth taking. After all, V’Landysball is all about outscoring your opponents rather than tackling them into submission.

This may be counterweighted by the changes made in the off-season, and the likelihood that most teams will be more prepared fitness-wise for the style of footy played. Trying to catch up offensively while sacrificing defence is chasing the game. It’s the curse of the late adapter – you can’t hope to compete if you follow the same path of those that went before you. You need a step change, not a step forward. The game may already be moving on, and Canberra fighting the fights of 2021 instead of playing the game of 2022. Only time will tell.

My hope is whatever decision is made is stuck with. Edge defence in particular is driven by relationships between players. Trusting that the man outside is following you in, that he sees the same things you are, and reacts the same way. It’s something built by repetition. There’s potentially new bodies at a range of positions in that space, so keeping the change to a minimum is critical. Further, with better defence at seven and the centre position (coming from the addition of Jamal Fogarty and more experience for Matt Timoko), perhaps defensive concerns on that edge become less pronounced.

If it is the decision for Whitehead to play edge in order to open up Canberra’s attack, you can add it to the pile of sacrifices that Smelly had made for the jersey. I hope people recognise that fact. This is not his preference or his choice. Yet again Smelly is taking one for the team, and playing a role in a stylistic shift that he, and the Milk hope drag them back to the right end of the table. For Elliott’s sake, let’s just hope it’s worth it.

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