Jake Connor and the X factor


Recently, reports out of England have identified that Canberra is still hunting there in search of talent and Hull FC fullback Jake Connor is the latest target. It’s hard to tell from here if it’s likely but rumours continue to swirl. Whether it happens or not remains to be seen. Of equal interest is what that says about the Raiders apparent ongoing interest in finding a fullback of the future.

A quick squiz at Jake Connor’s highlights will tell you he’s got a big body, impressive ball playing skills and a smart footy brain. He seems to have an ability to find holes and out of position defenders of the edge. He’s large for a fullback, much in the vein of Jack Wighton (though obviously not made of titanium like Jackie boy) but seems to have the agility that allows him to a problem close to the line. It’s clear the Raiders would love a more multifaceted attacking option as the second-man on those sweeping movement, giving someone the halves can trust to create and make difficult choices on the edge. Could Connor be that man?

It’s hard to know whether his Super League form translates. Connor is 27, a late bloomer that never found a home until a shift to the back unleashed the best of his skills. He doesn’t appear to have elite pace or athleticism, so it would require a step up in body and skill to join the NRL. It’s rare an English back has made the jump to the world’s top league, especially one who has such a mixed career over there.

This advanced age also means he wouldn’t be coming to Australia to wine and dine spiders. He’d want to be given an opportunity to start straight away, hopefully establishing himself as a starter (or a star) before signing another contract before he hits 30 and his earning capacity starts to drop off a cliff. Given that, why would Canberra be targeting him when they have not one but two first grade quality fullbacks, both younger than Connor, with more established pedigree in the NRL.

If the Raiders are genuinely interested it is telling us two things. The first is that it’s possible Canberra aren’t certain that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is going to be the around for long. Age alone means if they’re going to take a big risk on Connor (both in a money and wasted opportunity sense) then he’s meant to play. He’s not going to wait for Nicoll-Klokstad to play out his career in green before getting a shot.

This could be driven by form, or concerns about his body (major injuries in back to back seasons) but the greater likelihood for anyone paying attention to Charnze’s social media lately is the fact his family is in New Zealand. The challenge of being split from him kids by ‘Rona and water has been heart-wrenching to watch. If Canberra and Nicoll-Klokstad were to part ways because he needed to be with his family then no one could be blamed (though I would be heartbroken). If the Connor rumours are true, it’s not hard to think the Raiders are seeking a fullback to cover for this eventuality.

While this is a discussion about Connor, and maybe Charnze, it also brings the role of Xavier Savage into question. Savage has continued to improve in recent weeks. His dynamism in attack is noteworthy, and he is improving at the dirty work like yardage and defensive organisation. He still is yet to defend one-on-one, or in cover, at the level the Raiders need, and his tendency to lose the ball in heavy contact has been frustrating. There are occasions when he chooses to chance his arm at the wrong time. These things must improve for him to reach his potential, and likely will with time. That’s what development looks like. Some bumps and bruises but the trajectory is unquestionably up.

Which is what makes these rumours so surprising. Do the Raiders not see Savage as the long term certainty many of us do? This is not the first fullback Canberra have been rumoured to have interest in. Earlier in the year they were tied to Will Pryce, the 19 year old emerging English fullback/five-eighth. They also signed Chevy Stewart into the Harold Matts system, with some reports indicating their was a view within the club he was a long-term fullback possibility. Connor, Pryce and to a lesser extent, Stewart, are future prospects when that’s the position that Savage is meant to have locked up.

It makes one re-evaluate Stuart’s comments about Savage this year. Twice Stuart (unfairly in my view) put criticism of his emerging fullback into the public sphere: once when he made the mistake of taking the short-side against the Cowboys and was taken out, and later in potentially revealing frustrations at Savage’s work ethic:

Xavier has to keep buying in – to committing to do more. I want to get him more game-time. Xavier just has to keep committing to do the extras – like video work.

Originally reported in the Canberra Times here

None of these rumours or comments on their own would suggest a problem – indeed I dismissed them as they came along. But perhaps we need to consider them as a whole to understand the whole picture. It doesn’t mean Savage is being replaced, but what is the idea of bringing at 27 year old risk half-way across the world to play NSW Cup?

Of course this could be nothing to do with Savage. The Raiders may have marked Connor as a centre, or a half. After all, he’s played those positions in Super League. If that’s the case, it asks similar questions about Canberra’s view of other talents (like Brad Schneider) and holds the same substantial risks. There’s an argument that Connor could be competition to keep Savage on his toes should Charnze leave. If that’s the case, then it’s a lot of money and risk just to do what is essentially the coach’s job. Would that money not be better spent acquiring more certain talent? It’s also possible, probably even likely, this is just a rumour, in which case I’ll have a cup of tea and a lie down. But this rumour has persisted, and there are also rumours that Hull have already signed his replacement (Bevan French is still going around!)

Of course this could just be the battle Canberra face in free agency. It’s hard to get the biggest names of the NRL to come to the Raiders, so they have to look elsewhere. The discussions around Connor may be the Milk are backing themselves to turn an English talent into NRL brilliance. I’m not sure where he fits in, and maybe the club themselves aren’t sure. They just know they can acquire a talent worth moulding.

Only time will tell what the cost will be.

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