Ricky Stuart has a problem to solve.
Well, not so much a problem to solve but a least worst solution to choose. It’s not a ‘derail the season’ issue. But right now he has no risk-free answer to the issue of who play at right centre.
Like so many issues, it’s a referred pain. The injury to Harley Smith-Shields, who we had pencilled in as a round one starter at left centre has resulted in the shift of Matt Timoko to the left edge. Through two trials he’s started Semi Valemei at right edge. Firstly alongside James Schiller, then with Seb Kris and Xavier Savage playing outside him.
In both games the results have been mixed. Valemei has had some strong runs, and put on an exceptional pass to Schiller in the first trial that was only outshone by the winger’s pass inside to Brad Schneider a few moments later. Pushing him a spot in has also meant his challenges under the high ball are harder to magnify. But he’s also dropped ball he should be able to handle, and gotten into attacking positions he shouldn’t be in. Defensively is where our worries are greatest. He’s made some tremendous reads, based on a willingness to rush out of the line and shut down raids before they have a moment to evolve. But he’s also careened out of the line, targeting attackers that were already accounted for, creating problems for his outside men. We saw a perfect example of this in Manly’s third try on the weekend.
Semi read in on a defender that Fogarty has slide out to cover. Xavier Savage followed him in (the right thing to do), but the initial read had created an overlap and Manly scored.
It’s a tough position for Valemei to be in (again). Semi is obviously talented. He’s a ferocious runner, and a brutal tackler who can end attacking movements before they begin. He’s also inexperienced, and circumstances (and coronavirus) have forced him into having to learn his game in full view of a baying public. This season he’s being pushed into one of the most mentally difficult defensive positions on the field. The centre isn’t just responsible for their assignment, but also makes decisions that bind the winger. They are key in sniffing out what the fullback is doing, and acting accordingly. If they read wrong, it usually means a try (as we saw above). The right centre is even more proportionally important. Most teams score the majority of their points down the left hand side (or the defensive right). There’s a range of reasons for this but it means the right centre can often play a huge role in how the defence of the side holds up.
Top line players don’t always get this decision right so it’s a big task to take a player who’s only played 21 games of first grade footy to be perfect. There’s also little support around him to help him learn the ropes, or cover for errors. Likely right edge forward Corey Harawira-Naera is an aggressive defender, but he’s not a ‘multi-space’ defender like Elliott Whitehead or John Bateman. Adam Elliott will likely also play there also, but at the moment he’s second choice behind the Kiwi international. Outside him has been Seb Kris (not a winger) and the even more inexperienced Xavier Savage and James Schiller. It puts a lot of weight on Valemei’s shoulders.
If Semi plays the whole season at right there will be errors, especially in defence but Coach Stuart may have the bigger picture in mind. If he’s willing to wear the errors in the name of developing Valemei there may be a player of great worth. My fear here is the pressures of the position may have a negative impact on the young man’s confidence, in a way that learning the role in reserve grade wouldn’t.
There are other options available for Coach Stuart. Seb Kris would be many’s “safe” option at the position. He’s a hard line runner and a good front on defender, he can get found out laterally. The eye test suggests he’s a more stable option at right centre than Valemei, but statistically the match up is closer than people realise defensively. I’m loathe to put too much weight on try-cause numbers, but Kris had 18 in 20 games last year (the second most at the club). Valemei had 8 in 11 games. Kris’ tackle efficiency (another flawed statistic) is better than Semi’s (85% to 78%) but he had a higher rate of ineffective tackles (22 in 20 games against Valemei’s 4 for the season).
Alas the other options are no more perfect. Jordan Rapana has played centre in the past, but is suspended for two games, and it’s not like he’s a cool, calculated decision-maker. Matt Timoko could shift back to the right but this would create the same problem on the left. The experience of Jarrod Croker would be an option but the captain has not played much with the first string in the pre-season so it’s hard to say he’s in Stuart’s thinking. Bringing Nic Cotric all the way across the park to right centre would be hilarious (given he left to play centre, came back on the proviso he’d only be a winger). Moving Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad there and playing Savage at fullback was ruled out by Stuart shifting the emerging star from fullback after Manly showed the competition how to neutralise him. Other options like James Schiller or Brad Morkos feel like a year away (though Schiller impressed in his trial outings).
That there is no perfect solution may drive a decision to hope the potential of Valemei can manifest in more consistent play this season. I guess we’ll see. In a sense each option presents the same problem – defensive weakness – with a different manifestation. Maybe Stuart thinks if you’re going to fuck up, do it at 100 per cent, as an old coach used to tell me (I fucked up at 85 per cent quite a bit).
If Sticky pursues it, I genuinely hope Valemei works out at right centre. At his best he seems the kind of damaging runner that, with a bit of space, can do a fair bit of damage. But I’m not sold that is the option that Sticky will pursue. Similar left field decisions (like Kris bursting into contention is last year’s trial) were built on good performances. Semi’s offering on the weekend wasn’t that. It was more reminiscent of Corey Horsburgh’s failed attempt at playing on the edge in 2020. It’s a fragile situation, and the only question we have about the roster after the pre-season. Let’s hope Stuart has the solution.
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