Two years ago Tom Starling’s form was good enough to convince the Raiders to move on their captain, offensive fulcrum, and all around hero of the people, Josh Hodgson. Now Tom watches as a player who doesn’t (quite) have a long-term contract take the majority of minutes at hooker. What has changed?
The irony of the situation is the same forces that propelled him into the spotlight are the same that have played a big role in his slowing him down now. Starling had appeared solid in limited outings with the top side through 2019, but this gave little indication just how useful he’d be in the “juiced balls” era of V’Landysball. With middle defenders cooked or replaced by backs masquerading as forwards, Starling suddenly either had a massive pace and agility advantage and a complete diminishment of his physical disadvantage. There was space, always space, for him to get out and run.
There was no need for Tom to create because an in-form forward pack, and quality halves, made the opportunities for him. He didn’t need to deceive the ruck because Josh Papalii had ripped it to shreds. His service didn’t need to have width because defensive lines were on their heals, allowing shorter passes to first receiver, or time for an imperfect pass to find it’s mark without impacting space. Starling was young and perfect would come. At the time much was made of how much better Canberra’s attack was with him on the field. Through 2020 and, to a lesser extent 2021, the Raiders would invariably score most of their points when Starling was hurtling at pace across the grass.
With a 40 per cent reversion of the new rules back to the old rules, it’s highlighted the need for improvement. A slower ruck, less fatigued defences to take advantage of, and generally less space to operate in has again put a premium on using deception to make defences hesitate, or move a step in the wrong way. The game has changed and Tom is now chasing a game that once again suits players like Zac Woolford who rely less on pace and more on guile. It’s a similar problem Damian Cook has faced at South Sydney, and it cost him his starting position in State of Origin.
It’s been tougher for Starling and his minutes have suffered. Starling was playing 65.7 minutes a game as Canberra stumbled to a 3-6 start before Woolford’s arrival. Since the arrival of another option he’s only playing 38.3 minutes a game and the Raiders have won four games and only lost twice. With Woolford on the field, they’ve scored 108 points in six games, and only 34 with just Starling on the field (at about 2.5 times more points per minute with Woolford on the field instead of Starling).
So what now?
It would be wrong to suggest that Starling is spent force. His major crime is his abilities are built to reinforce success, not create it. When the team struggles so does he. There are areas of his game he needs to work on, and they may come with time and development. But even if they don’t, he can still be effective.
As much as anything, disappointment with his form is built on the expectations that have come with the surprise at Starling’s performance in 2020 and 2021. Despite arguably not having his best season, he still has the second most try assists and the fifth most try involvements at the club this year. Tom has still looked positively brilliant in moments this season, and a temporary swoon in form as he adjusts to a new dynamic shouldn’t be the end of him. It’s a lesson that the Raiders should heed, because they may be applying it to Zac Woolford at some point in the future.
Patience should be shown with Starling. Tom is just 24, and has already proven he’s a capable first grade quality hooker. Starling may be losing minutes to Woolford, but he still has elite skills that Canberra can’t replicate through other players at that position. He may not be a complete package, but at the worst he’s a perfect complement to whomever becomes the Raiders long-term nine. And if he does develop his service, if he does work on creating rather than just be a hammer to the forward packs nail, then he can be much more.
He is likely one of three hookers on the top 30 roster for next year – in fact he’s the only one with a contract (until Zac Woolford signs his two-year deal). Given the tendency to use two in top line footy, the challenges of injuries and the need for roster depth, the Raiders need to make sure they get the most out of Tommy. So regardless of whether or not he’s performing now, time and patience is needed to make sure the Milk get the most from their investment.
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