Centres of Development

BY DAN

Matt Timoko and Semi Valemei essentially made the same defensive error last round.

You’ll remember the situation. The Raiders had given away the ball throughout the second half as freely as I gave away my dignity most Fridays of my youth. The middle was cooked; more resembling the flambéed husk left over from your stereotypical dad’s bbq (not me though. We smokin’ out here). Everything was falling apart like it was all a bit of history repeating. And, as they have for so long, the Milk asked two of the least experienced players on the field to solve a problem that most grizzled veterans struggle with: how do you account for two attackers when you’re just one man?

It’s a problem every team has. Outside of the fullback captaining the defence, centre is probably the hardest position to defend at, tactically at least. You’re making decisions that bond your winger. You’re doing so on the end of oppositions best attacking movements. And, like both Timoko and Valemei on Friday, you’re doing it in a situation where your opposition has an acre of space and a head of steam.

It’s funny that people don’t often consider this when they’re talking about the defensive attributes of centres. Instead we assign blame (huzzah for us). Jarrod Croker was often blamed for the sins of others. BJ Leilua was unreliable, partly because he couldn’t solve the problems that Blake Austin’s outright unwillingness to make a tackle created. Neither of these players were perfect, but the blame directed their way on tries was disproportionate to their role.

It’s not just a Canberra thing. There’s a host of centres thought of as defensive liabilities over the years. That’s not to say these players are faultless or even good defenders, but perhaps we need to be more circumspect with the amount of blame with apportion to these defensive positions.

In their limited time in the top grade Timoko and Valemei have almost opposite approaches to solving the issues they face. Timoko is patient. He keeps his shoulders square and feet moving, trying to give himself as long as possible to make a decision of who is going to get the ball. His body position means he can move in or out. Timoko is hoping the offence reveals itself with enough time for him to catch up.

It worked out so many times on Friday. Routinely the Sharks pushed wide to the Raiders left. Timoko kept upright, shifting with the ball. More than once he played a big role in the opposition running out of room as they waited and waited for a defender to make an error that never came. Then in the second half Timoko stayed patient, but picked the face ball instead of the sweeping fullback Will Kennedy.

He couldn’t recover and it was all the space needed.

Valemei is the polar opposite. He defends like he’s shot out of a cannon. Aggressive. Targeting key ball-players. In Friday’s game he shut down several movements before they could evolve through this willingness to attack the attack. But when this doesn’t pay off all that’s left is him standing naked with nothing to hold but his own embarrassment. Against the Sharks he got this right on several occasions, shutting down an array of sweeps before they got going.

I’ve called it “messing up at 100%” before, and it’s easily the most noticeable, but in a sense it’s sacrificing your own ego for the team. That aggression is valuable, and with experience he’ll get that decision right most of the time. The problem is the one time you get it wrong, everyone will see. We saw this perfectly in the trial game against Manly.

Against the Sharks he got it wrong once, uncharacteristically staying out (I suspect due to the sheer weight of numbers outside him). On that occasion he made the opposite decision to Timoko, taking the man out the back when the face ball was the option.

It was a mistake sure, but one made by many before him and many to come, and one that was not his alone.

The Raiders can do their best to support these two edge defenders get a grasp of the challenge they face. The period after halftime was familiarly poor. Turnover after turnover from players that should know better wore them out, and the middle was unable to slow the Sharks’ big men. It meant Hynes, Moylan, and Kennedy were operating with no inside pressure, drawing outside defenders in and putting the young centres in difficult situations. More discipline with the ball could be a huge factor in a chain reaction of events. A more defensive focus to personnel on the right edge in particular could provide the support needed to help Valemei in particular thrive.

It’s worth noting that Stuart seems intent on leaning into both of these players at centre for the long term. Experience will suit both Timoko and Valemei, and help them develop the skills they need to recognise which player to take in these circumstances. For Timoko it’s not questionable. He’s already breaking tackles at will, has a handy offload, and has shown a maturity beyond his years in the combinations he’s building with Hudson Young and Jack Wighton.

For Valemei though, the argument will rage. His predilection for obvious errors makes him a lightening rod for frustration. It may be noise in aid of nothing. Jarrod Croker missed the reserve grade game with lower back soreness, and since had an injection in his back, which isn’t exactly the kind of “working his way back to the top line” anyone would have hoped for. Seb Kris may have been preferred for round one until the coronavirus stepped in, but given Valemei spent all of the trials at right centre it’s hard not to think that was Stuart’s plan all along. My personal preference had been for Valemei to get more “quiet development” in reserve grade but when he made Ronaldo Mulitalo look silly off his right foot early in the game you can see why Sticky is in love (oh if he’d only managed to ground it). So Semi may well be here to stay.

In the meantime patience is a virtue. Young players don’t get good by watching.

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