Jamal Fogarty was meant to be the guiding light.
I love Jack Wighton but he’s the personification of John Kennedy’s famous “Don’t think. Do!” speech. He’s the Kool Aid man, jumping through brick walls and making things happen, in all likelihood completely unable to explain why he did what he did when he did it. That’s part of his brilliance. He’s not a typical half. He’ll go take the game from the opposition through a run, a kick chase, or some moment where mere mortals are still wondering. Call it eyes up footy. Call it instincts. These individual moments of brilliance in a team sport are what make him great. When it comes to strategy though he’s no Clausewitz. It’s almost like the time to think makes the game harder for him.
Tom Starling isn’t a game manager either. He’s about taking what is given, and at his best he can be dynamic. Zac Woolford is new, and he provides solid service and a heavy tackle. He’s eight or nine games deep in a first-grade career, and it’s a lot to ask him to be the on-field brain for more experienced players. Josh Hodgson may have been asked to perform that role but his ACL didn’t cooperate. Neither Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Xavier Savage are the kind of player that can be the maestro at the back.
Canberra desperately need someone to bring these parts together. For weeks now we’ve been harping on an attack that looks discombobulated, that relies on opportunism rather than structure. That always seems to be doing whatever the opposite of the logical or strategically intelligent thing is. In wins they look clunky. In losses they look without direction. They’ve used their effort and energy (and a bit of Hudson Young magic) to manufacture wins. But without something more substantial, it will always feel fragile.
Jamal Fogarty was acquired to fill the departure of George Williams (can you believe that was this time last year? It feels like a lifetime ago). Without any knowledge of what happens inside the tent, it seemed pretty obvious his job was to be the adult in the room. To allow Jack, X and Tommy to do the amazing things without having to be mundane. To give Charnze the freedom to be the perpetual motion machine he can be without having to worry about being a every-down creator or movement shaper. Fogarty would be the brains that would get the Raiders to their kick. That would direct the offence into attacking an opposition weakness. He’d provide the right side attack with the helm that disappeared when Aidan Sezer and George Williams left.
Through five appearances for the Milk the progress has been uninspiring. That’s not to say Fogarty has been poor, but rather he’s yet to perform the role described on the packet. While patience is a virtue and this was always going to be work-in-progress after his pre-season injury, Fogarty has yet to find his feet in the Canberra offence. He’s been regularly caught by jamming defenders, unable to escape them either with quick feet or quick thinking. He’s often had no open option outside him, but this is heavily influenced by his lack of threat to the line. No one is scared that he might dart through the line, so they live in Matt Timoko and Elliott Whitehead’s pockets. Consequently both have become resigned to doing mostly dirty work in attack. Of course, the variable here is recovery from injury.
He seems to be comfortable letting others decide the tenor and direction of the attack. So often the Raiders shift left regardless of the positioning of the ball or the defence. It’s fair that Jack is their most talented attacker, and Canberra certainly score most of their tries heading that way. However, Fogarty is so often as involved in the attack as your humble scribe. No matter the situation, the team shifts left, even when there’s space and numbers set up out right. We’re all watching the ball shift left, he’s just got better seats.
I presume this is partly a team personality thing. It’s hard to establish yourself as the ‘voice’ for the team when there’s a Dally-M and Clive Churchill winning fella on the other side of the field. Perhaps Jack is over-ruling Jamal, demanding the ball because he sees something on those short sides. Perhaps he isn’t, and it’s more a reflection of familiarity that people like Tom Starling have with Wighton. Perhaps there’s a verdict rendered by the rest of the team, or by Ricky Stuart that we’re not aware of. There’s no clear way to know why. But what we do know is that the Raiders so rarely shift to the right that, as we noted last week, Jordan Rapana has any many tries in international footy this year as he does in club footy.
This is obviously not sustainable. Five weeks and little time to build a partnership with either your hookers or fellow half isn’t enough. The injury to Fogarty earlier in the year put the process of building key combinations on hold, meaning it’s behind where it would normally be by now. It hasn’t been helped by every opportunity to spend some time putting in work off the field has been hampered by Jack disappearing for Origin duty (as it seems he will do again this week as part of the NSW squad). It’s a wasted opportunity that becomes frustrating when you know the stakes.
There’s no choice available but to push on. Canberra need to fix this balance and find more strategic direction to their attack, and they need to do it urgently. One option is for Fogarty to have a clearer role and possibly a stronger voice in organisation, either through his own force of personality or through Coach Stuart’s insistence (though likely a combination of both). This would mean more ball in his hands, and a bigger role for him in directing the offence. Given his form so far hasn’t been perfect, it’s not guaranteed to work. And if it doesn’t at what point do the factors beyond his control become overweighed by the outcomes on the field?
That’s the short term challenge, but there’s a bigger picture problem here too. The Raiders need to work out if Fogarty is their preferred starter over the long haul. His contract is with the club through the 2024 season. Brad Schneider, who has already proven capable in the top grade, has a deal that expires the season before, and can theoretically sign a new deal with a team outside Canberra from 1 November this year. He’s unlikely to stick around if the Fogarty is going to be the preferred starter over the long term. It’s hard to express a view on who should have that role, but at just 21 (to Fogarty’s 28) it certainly feels like Schneider’s potential is higher, but that’s about as ‘feels based’ as analysis can get.
My preference in this scenario is almost always patience. As much I hate to admit it, Canberra’s 2022 feels like part of the 2021 story in the same way that 2017 and 2018 were a couplet. There focus need to turn to how they build for 2023. Either that’s through empowering Fogarty and allowing that relationship with his fellow spine players to build. Or it’s by making sure that option is pursued in its entirety, failing, then turning the side over to give the young halfback more time to learn at the top level. Either option likely means focusing less on the results of 2022 and instead looking to 2023. And that’s a little depressing.
Things have got to improve but the job is getting harder and the stakes higher and rising like De La Soul wrote a dope tune about them. Time is needed and there’s less than before. Maybe Jamal can still be that guiding light this season and beyond. But that flame is starting to flicker.
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