A new mindset?

BY DAN

When the news that Jamal Fogarty would be out for the foreseeable future emerged I, like probably many of you, assumed Ricky Stuart would take the safe option and replace him with the human security blanket, Sam Williams.

This is a lesson learned over more than eight seasons now. We know Sticky. In our bones. He has favourites. He has a way he wants things handled. It leads to people like Sam being turned to in an emergency. We saw it in 2021 when cousin George went home to England. We saw it in 2019 (and often before that) when Sticky somehow preferred him over the better-in-every-way Aidan Sezer for weeks at a time. We saw it even before that when an ACL injury to Josh Hodgson was seen by Stuart as a chance to get Williams in the team. Before that Stuart abandoned the development of Mitch Cornish after three weeks to bring back Williams and lead to one of the very first Sportress dummy-spits (a hilarious read in hindsight).

Of course there are many reasons that those were the right decisions then. Williams was always a favourite of mine; an intelligent and courageous footballer who used astute tactics and skills to overcome athletic challenges.

But it’s also because Stuart is a strategically conservative coach. Generally he’s had a way of one that prefers the quiet light of off-season to change his game plan rather than do too much during the season. Tactically it seems to me his search is more for someone to implement his plan properly, rather than tailoring his plan to the talent of the personnel. Williams is therefore just an example (and exemplar) of the trust built to implement that approach. It’s not a bad approach. It avoids panic, it provides certainty and time for cohesion to improve, maybe contributing leading to improved performances as seasons wore on (a debatable concept given how relatively “consistent” the Raiders have been in terms of the spacing of wins within seasons outside of 2016). Young players have tended to be eased in rather than relied upon, an admirable approach in a sense. It’s hard to justify (or not) based on results due to the lack of counterfactual.

All this makes his decision to start Brad Schneider this week such an interesting decision. The Raiders have developed an adjusted structure to their attack in 2022, and he lost a key part of that before a ball was kicked in disappointment. His human security blanket was right there, more than capable of being the commandant of consistency. And instead Sticky, for once, has taken the road less travelled by and picked the young guy.

There are good footy reasons for this. As Jordan Rapana told the world, Schneider is a much more physical presence in defence than the other players the Milk have available. He’s got a big boot and a big frame, so perhaps there’s some immediate material benefits that Stuart is searching for. The style of footy they play reduces the importance of the seven is being ball-dominant throughout the set, and so there’s scope for Schneider to insert himself as needed. With a full pre-season of learning the ropes, perhaps this as good time as any to let the young man play.

But also it could reveal a change in Sticky. A willingness to embrace possibility rather than assurance. Potential rather than certainty. It’s been so rare that Stuart has embraced a player this young with this level of responsibility. Other than moving Jack to six in 2014 (it was 2014 right? It’s been a while) or bringing Nic Cotric into the starting lineup ahead of Edrick Lee (and perhaps Xavier Savage this year), it’s been rare for him to have this level of faith in a young player. This may be courageous or it may be desperate. The games will sort that out. We’ll get an idea of just how far he’s taken his change of heart when he announces who will replace Jarrod Croker in the centres this week. If it’s Semi Valemei it’s just more evidence to support this change of mindset (update: James Schiller! That’s double evidence). The use of Xavier Savage over the first few weeks may be another hint, but also a limit to this change.

In the meantime we’ll be watching. Perhaps the old dog has learnt a new dance. It could be just what Canberra needs to be competitive in 2022.

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