Back to the Future?

BY DAN

Jarrod Croker was pretty good for the Raiders on Friday night. Not a single-handed world beater, but handy. But in a cruel low, the Milk will likely be without their leader yet again. The solutions available to Coach Stuart are imperfect, and would likely see him turn back to options that haven’t proven satisfactory. *Sigh* goddammit.

Coach Stuart talked about what Croker brought to the side in the press conference, noting his calmness and leadership was important in the lead-up to, and during, the game. In a game that lacked for anything approaching scintillating or creative attack, Croker was also notable in his useful touches. He had some good runs coming back against the grain. His flick pass to Nic Cotric got him running in space for the first time all year and perilously close to scoring a try. His mere presence made that happen, with Matt Frawley (like Jack Wighton in the past) super comfortable running it on the last knowing that if needed Croker would make the right choice to kick or push (or coast, for all my Lupe Fiasco day ones). He nearly scored chasing one kick (the 12k people at the game would have sounded like 25k had it been awarded), and helped back on another to save a try.

Ultimately this action cruelly injured him. He’s off for scans on Monday, but the information that has been presented publicly isn’t exactly heartwarming. Talk of things “popping back in” logically leaves us with the conclusion that they popped out to start with, and when that happens people start talking weeks. NRL Physio says at best 3-6 weeks, and worst case I don’t want to talk about. So we’ll do very little but cross our fingers in hope that it isn’t serious, because that leaves us with a whole other bunch of sad thoughts to outline.

For the team though it presents a challenge. Immediately there’s an issue to solve about what to do with their back five. This was their best outing all season, with every non-Croker starter cracking 100m on the ground, breaking 14 tackles as a group and generally looking threatening in everything they did. This performance is something to build on, rather than tear apart because of injury.

Given their most immediate opposition, the Raiders should also keep defensive cohesion at the forefront of their thinking. Canberra has a problem to solve about on their right side defence. Matt Burton and not much else made that right edge look flimsy last round. Brad Schneider and Timoko weren’t a perfect partnership, and more than once Elliott Whitehead look every bit of his 32 years. They’ll be coming up against an attack that recently ended Morgan Harper’s career, with Siosifa Talakai slotting into left centre as in the spirit of BJ Leilua or Mal Meninga (as in, is he allowed to be playing in this age group sir?). This isn’t the same team they faced in round one. For those reasons I suspect the preference of Coach Stuart is to keep things as settled as possible. The problem being it’s hard to tell if there’s a solution that means he doesn’t have to make more moves.

If the injury list is to be believed, Semi Valemei would be the first cab off the rank. A return to what was. He was preferred at centre until a surprise knee injury ruled him out this week. We were as sceptical as you were about that reasoning, but for Stick’s sake let’s take him at face value. Semi has played all season at right, which would shift Timoko back to the left. All the noise (and Timoko himself) have said he prefers the right, and with Harley Smith-Shields a left side player, one would assume the best case is continuing to play Timoko on the right.

Semi himself has had a (relatively) mixed season. His defence hasn’t been as problematic as I thought it might be at centre, but his carry hasn’t been as effective as one might have hoped. It’s been that kind of season. He’s still developing as a player, and its nowhere more obvious than in his defensive decision making. He can find himself standing in the line with the ball nowhere to be seen. He can also flatten a ball-carrier when he gets it right. It can be a high stakes game, but it’s a style that most teams are asking their centres to play. He gets to look dumb when it goes wrong. If your happy to ride the wave with him, he’s played plenty with Schneider and Whitehead at various points so cohesion is less of a concern. If errors come on that side of the defence it’s as likely to be ones that are baked into athleticism (or lack thereof) as by lack of familiarity and trust.

If Sticky is set on keeping Timoko on the right, the most likely option would be Seb Kris coming in on the left. Friday was his first appearance in ages, and he filled in at wing when Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s cork meant he couldn’t finish the game (and stayed there when Croker left the field, meaning Hudson Young shifted to centre for a brief period). Kris’ utility is that he can fill centre and backrow positions. He’s not agile or quick, and when he gets isolated in defence he can be beaten one-on-one. He also hasn’t played much centre recently, mostly finding himself on the wing because I guess Stuart sees him best used there. So between the me and Sticky, two equally brilliant football minds, it would suggest Kris isn’t exactly a slam dunk.

After this the solutions get a bit more left field. Would Stuart move a backrower to right centre given Talakai plays like a fast backrower? Corey Harawira-Naera was coming off the bench last week. Could he match Talakai? I’m not sure he has the pace (nor the power necessarily. Talakai is rare in that regard) but he feels more likely than most. It wouldn’t be a long term solution though. Sticky could also choose to shift Jordan Rapana or Nic Cotric into that match up, allowing Xavier Savage to return (pending Covid symptoms). Physically both could handle it, and Rapana is enough of a madman that at the very least he’d get all up in the Sharks’ left side attack (like a slightly more hinged Valemei to be honest). Given Cotric had his best game all season last round, it feels unfair to move him into this challenge.

At the very least it would be fun to make Talakai and Matt Moylan work in defence. The Sharks halves are both genuinely awful defenders. Talakai isn’t bad, but it’s always a good idea to make players that have a terrifying run work a bit harder in defence. So whoever Stuart chooses, I hope he loosens the game-plan a bit to allow the Milk to attack the edges.

Not for the first time this season an injury presents the Raiders with little but imperfect options. It’s been that kind of year. But given their desperate need of victories, and the substantial nature of the immediate challenge they face, it feels like this week’s decision takes on even greater weight. It can’t be fun to be Ricky Stuart right now.

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