The Canberra Raiders announced a series of relatively ‘minor’ roster decisions this week. At first glance they are merely ‘making good’ existing situations. Matt Frawley is taking over as ‘reliable but rarely used half’ from Sam Williams. Ata Mariota is finally taking a place in the top 30 he’s been working towards for the best part of two years now. And Zac Woolford is being targeted for a permanent first grade contract. By themselves they are small matters. But together they provide substantial salary cap relief.
The challenge of managing a salary cap is identifying where you can go cheap, and where you need to spend big. That works both immediately (in the sense of how much you spend on particularly positions and players) and temporally (in how you structure payments into the future). When big money players come off the cap, teams often make the mistake of spending big on whatever free agent is available because the space is there. But instead of going in search of a mirage, the Milk have, for now, embraced a more circumspect approach to roster management.
Both the Woolford and Mariota contracts represent a saving. Woolford will take the roster spot of Josh Hodgson, likely earning somewhere around 400-500k less than the Raiders legend. By the time 2023 roles around the Milk will have three quality hookers on the roster (presuming they re-sign the obviously talented Trevilyan too) for about the same amount of money that they were paying Hodgson. None of them are the player that Hodgson was at his best, but that’s not the point. The key is keeping money in the kitty while maintaining the talent and potential in the roster. Ata Mariota similarly is moving into the top 30, while Ryan Sutton and Adam Elliott drop out. It’s not a direct swap – Mariota isn’t going to leap-frog Trey Mooney and Harry Rushton in the pecking order – but it does mean that the depth forwards will all be on deals signed before they’re likely to have attracted the big cash. Frawley is less of a outright saving and more of maintenance of a cheap pathway to stability and experience.
It puts Canberra in an interesting spot when it comes the structural management of the cap. They now have three relatively cheap options at three of the four spine positions (where teams generally spend a good chunk of their cap space). This means they have the flexibility to bulk up other positions, like they’ve done by keeping Papalii and Tapine, or pursue free agents to potentially start at other positions. As we’ve noted before, playing at the top-end of the free agent market isn’t really something that’s ever been a part of the Raiders’ strategy. The Raider Raise is oft used to get big pay days elsewhere, and I don’t know who you would classify as the last elite free-agent the Milk signed (Mal Meninga? Jokes. I think?). So it’s more likely to see the extra money used to retain talent already on the roster.
This is where it’s about using that ‘temporal’ aspect of cap management. The players off contract at the end of 2022 are either leaving or relatively cheap to retain. But there are players coming off contract at end 2023 that can be signed to new deals come 1 November. Unless there is a unicorn on the free agent market that likes Canberra’s mix of winter sunshine and cultural institutions, they should use this cap space to keep that talent around. That includes players like Joe Tapine, and young guns Harley Smith-Shields, Xavier Savage, Harry Rushton and Brad Schneider.
There is obviously a risk here. Signing players before their existing contract is up is how we got into the mess around Jarrod Croker and Elliott Whitehead, where both players both hit roadblocks before, or right as, they started extensions. Tapine aside, the younger makeup of that group should prevent against that, and hey, maybe the Raiders are able to get away with using longer deals to have more team-friendly long-term deals (though this comes with it’s own risk, see Haas, Payne).
Of course they could get into the free agent market, but it’s always been a different vibe for the Milk. Free agent success for Canberra comes from buying other teams young talent and giving it opportunity. The current squad is chockers of it. Tapine, Young, Starling, Mooney, Nicoll-Klokstad, and even Woolford are all examples of players the Raiders gave a chance to that no one else will. They may not be able to buy stars but they can take players from cup footy or outside top 30s and offer them more substantive roles.
It will be interesting to see how Canberra utilise the space they have. Let’s hope they use it well. But it’s decisions like Mariota, Frawley and Woolford that give them the flexibility to try.