Filling a Timoko-sized hole

BY DAN

Matt Timoko left the Canberra Raiders loss to the Storm just before half time. At this stage it’s unclear when he’ll return, but when asked about it in the press conference after, Coach Stuart announced it was “not good”. Given the quick turnaround between this loss and Thursday’s game against the Cowboys, as well as the fact that Timoko didn’t finish the game, Canberra may have to make a choice about how they plan to fill this space.

It’s such a shame the Raiders are in the position. In a inconsistent start to 2022, Timoko has been a rare source of stability. Despite only playing 15 games he’s proven a worthy first grader. A bustling runner than busted tackles at near will, he added a weapon to Canberra’s left edge this season. He’s been so good we outlined how excited we were last week. Sorry. That’s on us.

The options for his replacement aren’t plentiful. The Raiders first choice centres for this year are now both injured, and so Canberra are now digging into the depth chart to fix them.

The short term

One option that was put to Sticky from the media on Saturday was the insertion of Seb Kris. This feels like the most likely option. Kris has been used multiple times in first grade this year in a range of roles. It seems he’s seen as the preferred utility back of the squad. He’s a strong line runner, which would replace much of what Timoko offered in attack, only with less speed and penetration than the young star.

He’s not laterally agile. This presents an issue in defence. Canberra’s lack of inside pressure on sweeping movements gives acres of space to opposition ball-players, allowing fullbacks to create overlaps on sweeping movements. The pressure on centres to fix this problem is immense. That will be a changed only by defensive improvement elsewhere, but in the meantime whoever holds this position will be under a spotlight. Kris would be exception.

The heart

Jarrod Croker has played consecutive weeks in cup footy. On the weekend he looked spry, providing some tough runs, a handy offload and general smart footy. It’s been so heartening to see him string some games in together. It’s hard to tell where he is in the estimation of Coach Stuart. When asked at the press conference about Croker the Raiders head honcho was non-committal about the likelihood of him playing top line footy.

It’s hard to not feel hopeful that Croker gets a game. Forget him making 300, it would just be nice to see him leave the top competition on his terms. Maybe in a few games of top grade footy shows he still has enough to see out the season in first grade, reach 300, and maybe get the send off he deserves. Sentimental I know, but that’s kinda the point isn’t it? Clubs and players are forced by circumstance to treat the game like a business. We don’t have to.

If offered the spot he’d fit in like a glove outside Wighton and Smelly. It’d feel like it was 2019 all over again, just a little older (it’s still good it’s still good). Those shifts left would have no shortage of ball playing options (although they may lack for punch and pace). At the very least Nic Cotric might see the ball in space for the first time this season.

The question for Croker is whether his body is up to it. Does he still have the speed and agility to mix it at first grade level? Can he physically stand up to players like Stephen Crichton targeting him in goal-line defence? There’s that word hope again.

The next gen solution

Another option is available to the Milk; to utilise this opportunity to thread their youth into the squad. While neither of the likely talent (Xavier Savage and James Schiller) is particularly suited to centre, the shift of either Nic Cotric or Jordan Rapana to left centre could facilitate easy entrance. Cotric has always wanted to play centre, and Rapana has done it in a pinch before, but neither is a ideal solution. However it would open up wing spot for young talent. I wouldn’t want to combine this inexperience on the right edge with Semi Valemei, so there is some sense to shifting Cotric inside, if only to reduce the amount of shifting required.

Another option is to shift Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to centre and bring Savage in at fullback. This is a favourite of the fan-base. It’s definitely the best situation for Savage. It puts him in his preferred position supported by experienced and quality yardage backs in Rapana and Cotric that can supplement and complement the young tyro’s skill-base. It’s not a good fit for Nicoll-Klokstad either, nor the Raiders, but given his, and the side’s current form, this may be irrelevant to a desperate team.

The problem here will be expectations management. The excitement around Savage’s effort against the Sharks last year, and the selective ignorance of his form in all other footy outside that game, has contributed to an faultless aura around the talent. Young players need space to grow, and I can’t remember a player with more expected of him entering first grade for Canberra for a long time (maybe since Todd Carney). The belief that many have that he can change this season may be an albatross on his neck if he doesn’t. Matt Timoko himself was hardly a star before first grade, but sinking a long putt once doesn’t mean you always want to land on the edge of the green.

Regardless, this youth movement feels unlikely, at least at this point (no matter what this idiot thinks). With a short turnaround, and then the Panthers, my expectation is that Stuart will turn to more experienced options like Kris and Croker to do the job in the short-term. But if Timoko’s injury ends up being long-term then the appeal of ushering the next wave takes on greater likelihood.

There’s no easy decision for Stuart. The feeling of closeness to cohesion that we outlined after the Melbourne game will likely lead him to keep the 17 as close to that as possible. A simple swap for Kris is the most likely outcome. Like with other injuries suffered this year, Canberra is a playing a game of hoping to hold the fort until reinforcements return.

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