What to do about Xavier Savage

BY DAN

To paraphrase the late great Lyle Lanley, the Raiders with a talent like Xavier Savage is like a mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.

Ok so that’s not strictly true. I’m pretty sure Peter Mulholland was involved in the first part, and so far they’ve done just perfectly in how to use Savage. But it’s been so long the Milk have had a singular talent like this it can be similarly overwhelming. Like new love, it’s intoxicating. Invigorating. You want it all now. Or maybe if you remember Eddie Murphy’s Delirious Raw, Savage is the first cracker after starving in the desert (kids Eddie Murphy was a comedian in the 80s. And an actor. And a singer. It was a wild time, and that joke was as hilarious as much of that special didn’t age well).

So it’s no surprise that after Friday’s performance most people are pretty excited. I honestly don’t remember the last time the Milk had a player with this much potential on the roster, not at least in the NRL era. Perhaps Todd Carney was the last player we saw coming from so far away as potentially changing the entire dynamic and style of how the Raiders operated (and well, that didn’t necessarily work out now did it). There’s a challenge in managing his way to make sure he reaches his potential in Canberra, rather than not reaching his potential, or reaching it elsewhere.

So far so good though right? They’ve identified fullback as his best position, which is unquestionably true. If a player can do this on a football field you want to have him around the ball as much as possible.

He was tantalising on Friday. Any time he got the ball he looked like he could break apart the Roosters defence. An inch of space was all he needed to drop the hammer and make the (fringe) first graders look like junior footy players. It was no surprise that many people’s response was a desire to make him the first choice fullback from now on.

My suspicion is that the Raiders are being more circumspect. As we said in the review, it’s clear that Savage has plenty of things to work on. He made two electric line breaks in the game, but on both occasions the pass that should have been a try-assist couldn’t find it’s mark. He was over-ambitious in attack, thrice attempting a grubber for himself that came off once out of sheer luck, and will rarely come off in reggies, let alone first grade. It was the kind of attack that is natural to a player that’s never played against anyone with his ability before (and has only been footy focused for a couple of years). He made three handling errors, one from a fairly anodyne bomb and the other two in contact. He got monstered on a couple of kick returns and yardage carries, something that is always going to be an issue when your weapon is agility, acceleration, and pace, rather than strength like the other members of the Raiders back three. He looked cooked from about 60 minutes into the game, which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the sporadic nature of football for him in the last 12 months. Its probably no coincidence that two of his three handling errors were at the back end of the game.

Defensively he made a great hustle play to support Albert Hopoate’s excellent try-saver, but he showed he has work to do on when Joshua Whyte ran through him for the Roosters first try (after also running past Trey Mooney and Brad Schneider).

It was remarkably similar to to his last man effort against the Sharks last year.

I’m not smart enough to know if that’s just technique, or strength, or some mix of the two. And to be clear those tries are not on him, and not many fullbacks other than Charnze would routinely make that tackle. But the fact remains that it’s an area for improvement for Xavier, and one that will become a focus for other teams against him. The Roosters didn’t test him once when he was at A defender in goal-line defence. Going forward I would be shocked if he didn’t see a steady stream of big and powerful ball-runners coming right at him when the Raiders defending their line.

Of course strong kick returns and yardage, unyielding effort and exceptional goal-line defence are the things that the game of incumbent fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is built on (not to mention an ability to organise the defence that was sorely missed last year). They’re also the things that Savage acknowledged that the coaching staff want him to work on in the post game interview with Fox sports. So choosing between Nicoll-Klokstad and Savage becomes question of trade-offs. You now what you get from Charnze, and how much you need it (i.e. a lot – the Raiders defence was elite last year with the Kiwi at the back. It was a debacle without it). But you can’t ignore the excitement and exhilaration of Savage’s potential.

Coach Stuart gave a hint of how he expects to handle the matter in his post-match comments to Fox Sports.

He’s certainly got talent… definitely [a] talented football player. But [it’s] really important we keep his head down, he just keeps working hard. This is only his second off-season of rugby league…so we [will] just keeping building his body and knowledge of the game, and he’s going to have a very very healthy career.

Ricky Stuart to Fox Sports

My take away from both Savage and Sticky’s post game comments was one of patience. If I can extrapolate from those few loose words, I suspect Stuart is more interested in Savage reaching his potential in the future rather than making him be everything to everyone right away, especially on the back of a performance in a trial game. It’s the kind of nurtured development that seems smart to me, though I suspect many won’t be as keen to wait. It’s also congruent with his approach in the past, where Stuart has often demurred when talking about young players, wanting to take the focus off them to prevent them being attributed ‘savior’ status.

Stuart knows that Savage will get tested more and more in goal-line defence. He knows teams will be careful to force him into tough, physical carries. He knows opposition defences will begin game-planning for him to focus on removing any space for him to operate, forcing him to create rather than destroy. It was a similar problem Blake Austin faced after a tearing the competition a new one for the first half of 2015. Teams notice. They stop what you do best. The key is well rounded game that allows you to contribute even when you can’t get to your preferred spots. Those skills can take time to develop. Being thrown to the wolves too early can destroy confidence, and impede the time and space to learn.

Even if he doesn’t start at fullback initially, there will still be plenty of opportunities this season. Firstly, as we saw Friday afternoon when both Sam Williams and Matt Frawley were ruled out, it seems that there will be plenty of opportunities for game time this year, particularly for vaccinated players who are less susceptible to getting the virus and less likely to be affected by it. There will be opportunities that may come because certain players are on the wrong side of restrictions on travel and work for unvaccinated players. Savage already figures to be in the thinking for the club through the first two matches of the season after Jordan Rapana’s overexcited toddler impression in the All-Stars game. With Harley-Smith Shields out for the season and Jarrod Croker’s future uncertain (though a smidge less uncertain after Friday) there’s potential that the Raiders choose to cover the left centre spot with Rapana or Cotric, allowing Savage to get experience on the wing before transitioning to fullback. It would be a similar pathway to a man I see as a similarly unique talent, Brett Mullins. It’s worth noting that Mullins too has suggested an approach with Charnze at fullback remains the best way forward to the Canberra Times.

The key here is having Savage’s best interest in mind, to focus on how to get him to be the best footballer he can be. This will also become important too later this year when he can negotiate contracts for 2024 and beyond. Teams will be circling, offering playing time, big money and anything else they can promise. Canberra’s argument may be money, but also a willingness to do what is best for him, promising protected development rather than immediate savior status. The willingness to be patient while his body develops, rather than thrust in amongst the monsters of the NRL and hoping he’s not on the injury list like last year.

As I’ve said before it’s a good problem to have. It’s better to have talent than not. But the onus is now on shepherding that talent to reach it’s potential rather than risking the talent on a gamble to change the direction of the season. Coaches like Ricky Stuart, with experience (and with job security), get to make decisions with a more long term focus. Love is intoxicating at first, but relationships need work to succeed. The Raiders should keep that in mind.

Last night I had the best fried chicken and I’ll tell you where I got it from if you like our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or share this on social mediaYou can email me (dan@sportress.org) and maybe we could be pen pals. My personal best box jump is 115cm. That’s pretty good.

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