It’s been an up and down start to the season for purgatory’s finest. The sputters of the Green Machine have brought frustration, confusion and an unending cavalcade of questions around Canberra’s lineup. But the play of Matt Timoko has been a quiet reminder of the potential of this squad, and a bulwark against the bumps of 2022.
Timoko was superb last year in his first season of “regular” first grade (he did play two games in 2020). In a rough year, he was the proverbial diamond. With 111 metres, and around three tackle breaks a game, he quickly established himself as harder to tackle than rocks, as if Korg decided that instead of starting revolutions he wanted to play rugby league. It earned him co-rookie of the year honours with Harley Smith-Shields.
For some reason a host of experts had him behind Jarrod Croker and Seb Kris in the depth chart to start season 2022. Chalk it up to only the real ones watching Raiders’ games. It was clear to anyone with two eyes that the young man was destined for good things. It was something the Milk had already confirmed they agreed with, extending him to the end of 2024 mid way through the 2021 season. It spoke to the esteem the club held him in, and made it even more confusing when people didn’t recognise the talent.
As if spurred to prove those people wrong, Timoko has started 2022 proving that he has the potential to be a force in this league. Despite three games where the Milk have largely abdicated responsibility for holding the ball, Timoko has still averaged well over 100 metres a game, adding an average of four tackle breaks. In the Milk’s wins he’s had 8 and 7 tackle breaks respectively, showing how important being able to get him the ball in space is to their success. Even in last weekend’s debacle, he still managed to crack 140 metres off just 11 runs. And while plenty came from a line break late in the game, he still managed 42 post contact metres, the (equal) second most on the team. It was surprising he achieved so much while barely touching the ball in space.
Timoko is only 22 and hardly a finished product. He still has plenty of work to do, specifically in defence. We’ve noted in these pages that at his best he can be a really patient defender, comfortable keeping his shoulders square so he can account for multiple possibilities (and attackers). On occasion he’s gotten overexcited, pushing up too far to try and account for defenders, only to see the defence go inside him. On others he’s been put in atrocious positions by defenders inside him; required to save the rest of the side from their own shortcomings. But he’s still made strides in that facet of his game.
No more was this evidenced that the multiple efforts to bring down Tommy Trbojevic floating out the back of Manly movements last round. Once it proved his downfall, when his aggression to push up on Trbojevic provided the space that became a grubber for Haumole Olakau’atu’s try. But on other occasions it was his decision making that meant Trobojevic was caught in space. It was pleasing to see, and showed how quickly he is developing in that space. It was also evidence that his combination with Jack Wighton and Hudson Young on the left can present a robust defensive grouping.
There’s also improvement left in his offensive game, but it’s more one of opportunity than skill. At the moment he’s used mostly as a battering ram. He showed last year he had a good offload with his right hand, but he’s rarely had an opportunity to display it this year. This can’t have been helped by a late pre-season switch from right side to left after the injury to Harley Smith-Shileds. It would be great to see him develop his passing game both in and before the line to really take advantage of his ability to skittle defenders. But this is quibbling; he’s not being in this role by Canberra and not being given this latitude or responsibility as yet. For now the Raiders are happy with him tearing holes in defences for others to take advantage of.
Timoko is such a bright part of Canberra’s present. That he is not yet a season worth of games into his time in first grade (he’s played 15) and already a “no-questions asked” starter is at startling. After nothing but questions over the makup of the back five over the last two years, it’s nice to see a bit of performance-based stability.
Timoko is also a leading light of the next generation for the Milk. It marks evidence that the promise and potential of young stars like Harley Smith-Shields, Xavier Savage, Brad Schneider and Adrian Trevilyan can be developed into something that can carry the green’s next era. There’s not much that is sure about 2022. But Timoko is already something Canberra can bank on.
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