I suppose it serves us right for getting our hopes up.
The Raiders got simply devastating news today when it was revealed that Jamal Fogarty had injured his knee and would be out for at least four months.
This is terrible news. If there was one position the Raiders didn’t really have depth at it was halfback. Fogarty was brought to the Milk to provide structure and organisation to their attack. He was supposed to build a partnership with Jack Wighton, freeing the five-eighth up to play more direct football. Fogarty was meant to also be a threat with his feet, willing to take on the line and test defences with footwork and ball-play close to the line. Alas that partnership, which had only just begun to build, as evidenced by their heartening performance in the trial match against Manly. Now, even if the Canberra find a way to hang on to top 8 hopes, they’ll have limited time before finals to properly develop their relationship.
If there’s a silver lining it’s that the structural changes this off-season put less emphasis on the halfback as a key creator. The role isn’t gone, but so many decisions about the direction of the attack come from the key middle-forward’s decision tree (taking on the line, playing out the back, playing short inside and to the backrower). Much of what Fogarty was bringing was based around an ability to catch, run, and ball-play, at the line on the basis of decisions made inside him. Whoever does replace him should have the ability to take the ball to the line (and through it as the opportunity presents) to ensure that there is space for players like Corey Harawira-Naera and Matt Timoko to take advantage of.
This means that the traditional band-aids of Sam Williams and Matt Frawley won’t be particularly useful. Both are honest footballers, and perfect squad members able to fill-in for first grade for a short period of time. But neither is a threat to the defensive line, and as such, there mere presence will remove space for the outside attackers. This could have profound impact on the effectiveness of the Milk’s attack, putting even more pressure on the key ball-playing forward to operate with fewer options.
In addition, the length of time Fogarty will be on the sidelines will compound their ineffectiveness. Both have limited utility over a period of this length. Sam is a wonderful stop-gap, but after a while opposition attacks start to target him in defence, and the Raiders don’t have the defenders capable of covering their own gap and Williams’. Matt Frawley is a better front-on defender, but he has no lateral agility. Both will become the focus of opposition game-planning, and while the Milk’s defence figures to be more energetic, and therefore more capable to help out the edge in 2022 than 2021, it’s a massive ask to do it for an entire season.
But these options aren’t the only ones available to Canberra. There are two other options that intrigue me. One is playing Josh Hodgson at seven. Many argue that Hodgson is more comfortable playing ‘eyes up’ at first receiver in V’Landys’ NRL. He’s an intelligent creator that can strategically target weaknesses in the opposition’s defence and wear them down. Hodgson is comfortable taking the ball into the line and has the passing and kicking games to play as a 7. He’s never going to make a break taking on the line, but he won’t be shy about pushing into the defence and keeping them honest. It would limit his use as a ball-playing forward, but that role could be covered by Elliott Whitehead and Adam Elliott.
The risk with this option is defensive. It brings around the same issues as having Williams or Frawley in the defensive line. It might be fine for short periods, but teams would target him in defence, and instead of having big men run directly at him, he’d be tested with more agile and powerful runners. Think about Hodgson trying to tackle Villiame Kikau. It’s not a pretty thought. Perhaps if Adam Elliott or Elliott Whitehead was going to be his defensive support it may make sense. But this would require un-doing the entire restructure the Raiders undertook this off-season.
And of course there is young talent Brad Schneider. He’s a brilliant footballer, he’s comfortable playing on the right and has a solid boot to match. He’s a better defender than any other option. Schneider’s performances in NSW Cup footy and in this year’s trials have shown a remarkably mature mindset, as well as willingness to ball-play in the line, and even try to push through with relative success. While trials aren’t indicative of likely performance, he did clock 100m on the ground in the first week. He’s actually a good match for the problem of Fogarty’s absence.
This would be a massive ask of the young man. He’s barely played football over the last two years, and the best case for him this season would have been a year or so running the reserve grade team before having the responsibility of top-line footy thrust upon his shoulders. The quality and experience of players around him would make it a somewhat softer landing, and the responsibility that the new structure puts on key forwards to make decisions about the direction of the attack means that the game would be somewhat simplified for him.
Regardless of how you cut it though it would be a significant weight on the young man’s shoulders that he is likely not as prepared for as anyone would like. But it seems to me he’s the best fit for the role. The cool head. The defence. The ball play, and willingness to take on the line. Hook me up and lock me in on the Schneider experience.
I’ll be surprised if Coach Stuart is willing to make that jump (update: he did in fact make that jump). If I had to guess I would expect that Stuart would start with his security blanket in Sam Williams. However that pans out, the extra time may give Schneider a second to acclimatise himself to football again before being thrust into the limelight. My hope is that in all of this key players, Jack Wighton in particular, take this opportunity to take more responsibility, to ensure the Milk continue to aim for top level. If even the Milk needed Wighton to perform at his best, it will be through the first four months of the season.
This is such a rubbish situation, and possibly the only one the Raiders didn’t have a good solution for. None of the options available are without risk, but that’s the grim impact of this injury. Fogarty was plugging a hole that the Raiders didn’t have another way to fill.
This is a massive downer so if you like our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or share this on social media, I’ll have a shot for you tonight. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll write back in iambic pentameter.