In Canberra’s loss to the Storm on the weekend they faced many obstacles, many of their own making.
One of the challenges they faced was an increased reliance on their big middles to make pass-run decisions as link men through the middle third of the ground. Initially that role this season was to be largely carried out by Elliott Whitehead, operating as a key link between the middle and the edge. In the trials we saw him play that role, shifting the ball to edge runners and even setting up tries early in the season. However, with Hudson Young’s injury, Whitehead moved back to the edge from whence he came, and suddenly all the middles were asked to increase their involvement passing through the middle third.
It was mostly successful but sometimes imperfect. Not all of these players are suited to this role. Josh Papalii for one feels wasted ambling three steps to the line and shifting the ball. Having the big man only take 9 runs in 54 minutes is hardly ideal. It wasn’t only misuse of resources that was a problem. It put forwards in the position as key decision-makers in attack, and on more than one occasion passes were held that desperately needed to be thrown (and the other way around). In short opportunities were missed that needed to be taken.
It’s clear that this is a developing skill for the Milk’s pack. For a long time they’ve been focused on hit-up and offload as their only attacking jobs, with link work limited to relatively obvious shifting movements and supplemented by the ball-dominance of other players. But if Canberra are intent on playing with more width, and with Tom Starling as the lone number 9, this is a role they’ll have to take on, and one they’ll need to do better.
One way they can do it better is by getting more appropriate personnel to play that role. Earlier this season we had pinned Adam Elliott to potentially play this role alongside Whitehead. He’s done it to a limited extent, but with Whitehead moving to the edge (potentially for a while depending on Hudson Young’s form/sore toe), this is not enough. Corey Horsburgh and Ryan Sutton play a link role, but aren’t the creator than Whitehead was meant to be. All of these players have the capacity to pass, but it’s about picking when to pass, how, and when to run.
Harry Rushton is an option yet to be used by the Raiders this season, but he’s one worth considering. A still maturing player right out of the club’s developmental heartland (north England), Rushton’s successful transition from edge-forward prospect to dominant middle has been fascinating to see.
We got to see how well this transition is going in his performance in NSW Cup last week. In this game he played all 80 minutes, taking 14 carries for 144m (including 66 bruising post-contact metres). His leg drive and agile footwork in the line were imperative in his success, and are skills that will transfer well to first grade. But more than just a strong runner, Rushton was a key part in every set the Raiders had. He had 39 receipts for the game, and spent much of it providing passing across the middle to engage more defenders and put fellow forwards in more advantageous positions, and connecting to the halves. He has deft hands, and looks comfortable passing to both sides of his body.
In addition to his good passing through the middle, he provided good decision-making. The hardest bit of this role seems to be deciding when to pass and when to run, and Rushton always seemed to choose the right times to tuck the ball and go, and when to look to pass. In red-zone attack this became increasingly evident, such as when as the first receiver he threw a perfect face ball to put Clay Webb in to score. There were options out the back, but he made a smart read to find the edge-forward isolated close to the line. He also scored a magnificent try when he grubbered for himself, repeated the effort and dived on the ball.
It’s unlikely to be a skill he uses this season if he plays first grade, but it is again indicative of an ability to see where the space and weak spots in a defence are, a critical part of the run/pass decision tree. He added a team-leading 42 tackles, and barely looked troubled with the extra effort throughout the game. It was the third time this season Rushton has played 70 minutes or more, an astounding effort for a middle forward.
This performance isn’t a one off either. There’s been limited opportunities to see him play from my vantage point, but all reports are this effort wasn’t out of character with the other games this season. That stats back this up, with this being his third game of 100 plus metres in four outings this season. He’s already scored three tries, and created two tries for others. It’s exciting to see.
It’s something he’s clearly been building towards. If he keeps this sort of output coming, and keeps showing his comparative advantage at skills that the Raiders have a shortage of, then it won’t be long before he plays first grade. Given the inconsistent performance of Canberra’s middles on the weekend, particularly in their expanded role passing the ball, that won’t come a moment too soon.
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