The Canberra Raiders miserable season continued true to form with the announcement that Jack Wighton would likely miss at least two weeks. It comes from a charge for a dangerous throw against the Warriors (sidebar: did you know he was screwed as soon as Blocker said there was nothing in it? Me too). The Raiders may fight it, but the prospects aren’t great. It further exposes the Raiders weaknesses, and puts them in a difficult position for next Friday’s spoonbowl against the Bulldogs.
If you’d asked me before now if there was a single player the Raiders just couldn’t live without it would be Jack. Sans Hodgo, Fogarty, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s confidence/health, Canberra are really pushing the limits of what their roster can handle. Jack is most of their attack, simultaneously the starter and the finisher of their best movements. It’s not sustainable to continue like that, but it’s worse to be without him.
The obvious replacement is Matt Frawley, given his natural predilection as a left side half, and the fact he was the choice back in round two when I thought we had some candles to get us through this blackout. He’s not half the player Jack is, in stature or talent. But he’s smart, has a good boot, and he’ll give his all. At the very least he’ll reduce some pressure that Brad Schneider currently feels to run the team around, as well as in kicking. He’s been playing a lot of hooker in NSW Cup this year, so it’s not ideal preparation (but in Sunday’s cup game he was playing seven; another indication he’ll be back in the halves with Wighton out).
Given he’s much less likely to test the line, it will put pressure on Hudson Young and Matt Timoko. Given Frawley will only take on the line out of necessity, they’ll probably plenty of ball but they’ll be getting it with more attention from defenses unperturbed by what Frawley may offer in attack. This will be a substantial test for them both. Young and Timoko are strong runners, but still developing in other areas of their game. Young’s ballplay skills need to improve, though there’s been evidence this season that the skills are building (such as his well-placed grubber, or his interplay with Timoko for the game-winning try against the Sharks). Sometimes he’s too slow, and he gets caught with the ball waiting for the right play to emerge, but you can see there’s something worth building on. For his part Timoko seems to get the ball so rarely with any space or opportunity to work that it’s hard to judge his progress. Without Jack is makes sense to get them the ball earlier than they currently do. The freedom may suit them.
Outside of Sam Williams (who came off the bench in cup, telling you where he is in the depth chart), the rest of the options to replace Wighton are left field. Smelly to 6? Sure I could see it. He’s probably not athletically capable of doing as well as he’s done there in the past. He’d essentially be replicating strands of his ball-playing 13 role. That’s been abandoned by the Raiders, which makes me think it’s unlikely. Jarrod Croker is another option – he played six for periods in the trial game, and a move to more of a ballplaying role may suit his ageing body. He’s not going to beat people with the run, but he’ll keep their attention. He can pass, kick (mostly short) and read the game well. Unfortunately I suspect it would be quite the risk to put him there defensively, both in terms of immediate success or the long-term health of his body. I’d take it to see him a game closer to 300 but I’m not in charge.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is another option – again he filled the role somewhat in the trials, and at other times this year he’s been heavily involved in playmaking. I’m not certain he can kick, and he’s not exactly Joey Johns as a ballplayer. Defensively he’d be fine, provided he’s lost the tentativeness that has plagued him this season. But if his form or body isn’t good enough to play his preferred position it seems particularly odd to think he can play a completely different one (which also suggests maybe don’t pick him on the bench but I am just a humble couch potato).
In short it’s another awful situation the Raiders find themselves in. This weeks game is critical, for their chances of avoiding the wooden-spoon, for the mental health of the team, for the job prospects of so many, and, god forbid, for any semblance of a chance of a successful season, however you wish to identify that. We called last week desperate and evidently the Milk aren’t there yet. But they need to win this game, and the fact they’re already trying to do without some of their best ball-players. Now they’re basically starting their second string spine and hoping to succeed. Good teams sometimes manage this well during Origin. Inconsistent teams like Canberra rarely do.
The Raiders will simply need more from almost every player on the field, particularly the spine around Frawley. Tom Starling will have to play a leading role in the attack, pushing and probing around the ruck. His service hasn’t been perfect, but when Canberra have played well he’s been at the centre of it this season. Brad Schneider is going from being eased into the role of first grade half to having to run the show. It’s unfair to ask more but that’s what the Milk will need. He should be first receiver on both sides of the ruck now, which he’s proven comfortable with. It will also require even more from Rapana at fullback (or whomever plays there). Like many teams he’s often first receiver on the right when Schneider shifts left, and if he doesn’t offer a credible attacking options teams will simply shift their defence to wherever the half is.
It will also be critical for the Milk’s forwards to play a role creating through the middle. Elliott Whitehead will likely return this weekend, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of Harry Rushton. As demonstrated in the second and third try the Raiders scored, the middle forwards role in adding width to the attack is important, and only moreso without Wighton. Harry should stay, and Smelly should be added. I suspect that’s pipe dream of mine though.
There already wasn’t an easy way forward for the Milk. This Canberra season is like a car being held together by lacky bands and chewing gum. Now they’re performing more repairs mid-trip and there’s no time to stop. Whatever choice they make, from safe to out-of-the-box, won’t be a good one, because their best option will be watching from the sideline.
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