In last Friday’s trial Adam Elliott started at left edge. The day previous Jamal Fogarty told the Big Sports Breakfast radio show that he’d been building a combination with Elliott on the right. Corey Horsburgh the week before said Elliott Whitehead might be playing middle. Just how are Canberra going to line-up through the back row?
It’s been a whirlwind little period for those of us trying to ascertain how Canberra would juggle the fact it had more backrowers than places. We started by arguing Adam Elliott should join forces with Elliott Whitehead to form a two-headed mobile lock force (Smelliott?), allowing Hudson Young and Corey Harawira-Naera to play in their natural spots on the left and right respectively. Half of that story came true when it was confirmed (or speculated?) right from the Horse’s mouth (happy Tim?) that captain Whitehead would be spending time in the middle.
But then that theory had holes shot through it when the Raiders’ new halfback dropped his news, and Adam Elliott was named alongside Trey Mooney at second-row for last Friday’s trial. Elliott started on the left, until Adrian Trevilyan’s injury forced him to shift to hooker. Corey Harawira-Naera filled in on the left and it seemed would have at least stayed there until Trey Mooney took a head-knock which forced him from the field. Harawira-Naera shifted to the right, Clay Webb came on to play left edge, and it all provided nothing but confusion as to how the Milk would line up going forward.
Adam Elliott looked safe as houses on the left in limited moments, and it’s helpful he can cover 9 if the Raiders decide to go with a single hooker going forward. Corey Harawira-Naera looked fit and ready to play. His only major contribution in the trial was in support work to score off Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s break. Hudson Young and Elliott Whitehead weren’t named, like many of the front-line players. But Fogarty’s revelation gave us pause. If Elliott is going to play right why did he play left in the trial? If Harawira-Naera is going to play right why did he backfill on the left, and only shift right after injuries?
As we’ve repeatedly stated, our preference would be for Hudson Young to be given the left edge spot permanently. To quote me:
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.Me
Given he was left out of the trial game, his position in the side is likely settled (although it’s possible it’s settled at another position). For many Harawira-Naera should be given that right edge spot. He’s a barnstorming line-runner and has an ability to beat his man one-on-one and lay off an offload. The sort of open field work in which he excels can make him a game-breaker in V’Landysball, as we saw in the Raiders victory over the Sharks in round 18 last year. That night he had 13 tackle breaks, 7 offloads and a whole bunch of pain metered out to the Sharks defence. But performances like this aren’t as common as we’d hope, and while his tendency towards defensive lapses is unnoticed by the commentariat, I suspect the coaching staff are well versed in them.
Given Elliott’s performance in the trial, and the comments by Jamal Fogarty that he and had been building a strong relationship on the right (though that’s literally all he said about that) should be enough to ask the question about whether he starts for either Whitehead, Harawira-Naera or (to a lesser extent in my mind) Young.
Another (and probably still likely) interpretation is that the Raiders are preparing Adam Elliott to play back up in a range of positions. As we’ve noted before, he’s a useful middle option for the Milk. From the bench he could cover minutes at either edge or middle as needed. As smarter men than me have recently said, it’s a good way to get as many of your best players on the field as possible. It also means that the Raiders can mix and match Elliott or Josh Hodgson at 13 in substitution for Whitehead.
An extension of this, and a different interpretation that I first heard from Matt over at at the Green Machine Podcast, is a change to how the Raiders manage their edge minutes. In the past they had used their backrow as 80 minutes players, and rotated bench players through the middle. But with the flexibility offered by this set of players that can cover both edge and middle, there might be an inclination to follow the path outlined by the 2021 premiers in Penrith. They played Liam Martin, Villame Kikau, Kurt Capewell and Scott Sorensen across their backrow with Isaah Yeo usually playing 80 minutes at 13. It’s an intriguing approach that seems to suit the aerobic demands of the current game and ensures plenty of differing attacking options. The risk with this is always cohesion. Edge defence is about understanding what your partner is doing and reacting in the same way. It’s hard to build repartee, as Fogarty has acknowledged he’s doing with Adam Elliott.
Finally, given how the roster was structured last week it’s entirely possible that Horsburgh’s tale was a red-herring, and that the Raiders would start 2022 how they ended 2021. Horsburgh did imply Whitehead would spend more time in the middle, but said nothing about exclusivity, your humble author extrapolated that. And if Smelly lines up on the right edge for round 1 (i.e. exactly where he ended last year), I would have wasted a lot of time this offseason. My apologies.
We’ll get a better idea of how this plays out when Sticky names the side for the second trial game. But even that won’t guarantee how this plays out. I suspect we’ll be waiting until the season starts proper to see how the Raiders are going to play this.
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