Xavier Savage took the ball after a good hit up by Matt Timoko. The opposition defence was a bit disheveled and definitely fatigued. Liam Knight was coming forward to try and cover for the fact several defenders were still retreating, and whichever Burgess that is was a tinge further away than he might otherwise have been. Savage spotted an opening, and Knight knew he was in trouble. Where was the help? There was no help.
Savage was through the gap so fast it felt like he was on the travellator at the airport and everyone who was chasing him was stuck using their own damn legs. It was only a small and a millisecond of panic but he’d made the most of it, and with twenty metres of ground still to cover before the try line the Raiders were already celebrating. Look at this photo. Matt Timoko knows.
This is what Xavier Savage does at his best. Given opportunity to use his pace and agility, either in space or around the ruck, he is a weapon. He can turn a molehill into Mount Doom.
Savage is going to get more chances to do this. David Polkinghorne of The Canberra Times reported that the hamstring injury Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad suffered last round would keep him out of this weekend’s game, if not more. We mentioned in the pre-season that we thought Savage would get opportunities at a few positions this year, and after playing on the wing and as a utility back, this will be the first chance starting at fullback.
It’s a change in Stuart’s philosophy, or at least his depth chart, at the position. Before last weekend he had brought Savage into first grade via the wing, shifting Jordan Rapana to the back. Last weekend though Savage was a straight swap for Nicoll-Klokstad. Partly this is because of the performance of Rapana and Nic Cotric on the wings – after a slow start to the season their improvement, alongside Charnze, has been a critical part of Canberra’s renaissance.
But also it’s because Savage continues to make improvements to his game, to the extent that . We all saw the run he made that resulted in the try, but that has always been part of his game. What I saw in addition to that was that Savage was had started to make inroads into some of the hard stuff required by a fullback.
Stuff like difficult carries in yardage and on kick returns. Given a smidge of space Savage can obviously turn a gap into a big run. But that space doesn’t always exist, and in the past Savage has been caught by bigger defenders and put in difficult position and forced into slow rucks. This puts the pressure on the next runner, allowing teams to smash the Raiders into hard sets and poor field position.
It’s a problem that all smaller fullbacks face. The best ones (like Ryan Paenhuyzen) use their agility to get between tacklers so a quick ruck follows an imperfect tackle. The key is knowing when that’s on, or when they need to find their belly – sacrificing metres for a quick ruck. Not as glamorous as a break, but critical in yardage work regardless. On the weekend there were several mature decisions from Savage, getting low and preemptively finding his belly when there was nothing to gain, or too much to risk, from taking on the line.
There was also management of the defensive line in the red zone. Defensive organisation has been a hallmark of Nicoll-Klokstad’s play over the years. It’s been a key part in turning Canberra from a “let’s hope we score more than them” to a veritable Game of Thrones style wall (at times). It’s hard to assess organisation skills from TV – it’s kinda similar to watching a good dummy-half working. It’s just easier to see them manipulate the ruck if you’ve got the whole game in view. But on the weekend Savage was clearly instrumental in talking and directing the defence. It’s heartening to see.
There are aspects of his game that still require work. He still loses the ball in strong contract too often (and had a handling error on the weekend from such an incident). It’s been something he’s been susceptible to and hopefully is working on. Similarly Alex Johnston scored when the Savage’s cover defence failed to either make good contact on the Souths’ winger, or turn him inside where help defence was.
It was a weak tackle and poor defensive positioning from the young man. He’d earlier made an effective cover tackle, and missed another on Damian Cook’s try. It’s a little bit ability and a little bit consistency. He’ll want to build on that skill; the other option is to be Matt Dufty (all sizzle and no tackle). Savage will also get a proper test of his positioning when Mitch Moses puts his kicking boots on. It will be interesting to watch.
In a likely two week stint against Parramatta and the Roosters he’ll get tested, but he’ll also get every opportunity to continue to develop. He’s made improvements, and the areas he needs to work on can improve with game time. A period like this is the perfect amount of time to be tested, and see how he’ll succeed when teams game plan for him After all, the best experience is experience. It might be a short term challenge for the club in the context of the Raiders’ season, but the lessons that Savage will learn playing fullback could be critical in preparing him into the future.
Here’s hoping he’s heading the lessons. Ricky Stuart’s comments to the Canberra Times recently about wanting Savage to do “extras” like watching video were conspicuous. Were these loose words or a pointed reminder to his young charge that work ethic is an important skill to develop? We can’t know from this side of the fence, but if Savage continues to improve it will suggest he’s doing the work.
It’s not ideal to lose a member of your spine at anytime. With Jamal Fogarty rumoured to be potentially an option this week, it throws a lot of variance into a side that has only just started to establish something approaching cohesiveness and consistency. Charnze is a big part of the Milk’s revival. But Savage has improved, and this opportunity will only propel that process even further down the line. And who knows, we could get another moment like last weekend.
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