It’s not going to be easy to keep Joe Tapine.
In an interview reported by the Canberra Times, Joe told the world that he’s officially on the market when he announced he won’t be signing a new contract until November.
I haven’t really talked about it to be honest. I’m just trying to focus on footy. Obviously it’s got to wait for November or whatever happens so I haven’t really talked too much about that so far. I’m just going to try and do my job and…do the same stuff I do every week, and keep that consistency for the rest of the year.Tapine to the Canberra Times
Amongst that attempt to say nothing is a reference to November. That date is important of course because it’s the exact moment he can sign a deal with another team for the 2024 season and beyond. He could sign an extension before that date, but Canberra would be the sole negotiating party (if you still believe in Santa and that agents don’t go contract fishing before 1 November).
This may be part of Tapine’s strategy to make sure the Milk don’t low-ball him. As his manager has gone to great pains to point out all year, he’s a hot commodity, and in February at least, his preference was to stay in Canberra. Waiting until November will ensure there is a clear indication of market value. In addition, given there’s still player movement for 2022 occurring until the end of this month, it would also give a chance for the cap situation of other clubs to settle. It may also be part of a plan to see which way the Raiders go on an extension for Coach Stuart. Lord knows they haven’t had a perfect relationship.
At best this is high stakes stuff. To keep him the Milk will have to pull out all the stops. Money shouldn’t be an issue. The Raiders have always paid full value for Joe, regardless of his on-field performance. They have a heap of cap space this offseason with the departures of Josh Hodgson, Ryan Sutton, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, and Adam Elliott and little coming the other way. It feels unlikely that Tapine would get more money elsewhere. In addition, Canberra are probably the only other team that can offer Tapine the leadership responsibility he seems keen to take on board.
At worst this is a soft launch of the announcement he’s strongly considering leaving. We saw Ryan Sutton put out similar feelers in the off-season before later announcing his departure of the Bulldogs. Sutton said:
I really just want to concentrate on having a good preseason. You can really get distracted by that stuff. If the Raiders want to move or if other things are there, I don’t know, I’ve just got to make sure I concentrate on myself and what’s going on in the present rather than thinking about the futureSutton to The Canberra Times
Seems familiar right? The same factors that drove Sutton away (lifestyle) could be pushing Tapine away. Or it could be a recognition on his behalf that the window for the Milk has closed for the time being, and he’d prefer to head to head to another
Sombrero club where he might be able to play for a premiership in the back end of his prime.
It’s not ideal for the Raiders. If they want to keep Tapine they’ll have to pay the market rate for the best prop in the game. Joe is that right now, leading the competition in post contact metres by some margin, leading all forwards in total metres gained, playing better defence than ever and generally looking like he’s solved rugby league for middle forwards. But as we’ve written a few times, middle forwards tend to peak between 25 and 27 (Joe is 28), before heading south once they turn 30, as shown by this work by the Rugby League Eye Test. Whatever deal that comes after his current one will start when Tapine is turning 30. Whoever pays him will likely be paying for past performance rather than current. The Green Machine have made that mistake a few times recently, and it’s hard to know if paying Joe will be the right decision, but it definitely won’t be an efficient one.
But if they don’t want to pay him what the best prop in the competition is worth, then they might just lose arguably the best prop in the competition. Given Josh Papalii feels mortal for the first time in his career, there’s a different sense of urgency to that fact than may have existed at the beginning of the year when these discussions started. That’s only reinforced by Tapine’s exemplary play. A forward pack led by Corey Horsburgh and an ageing Papalii in 2024 feels a lot different than the alternative, even with the range of stellar middle forwards the Green Machine are churning out.
So strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Given how Tapine’s management have talked in the past, given how Joe is playing ‘coy’ now, it’s likely to be all whispers and daggers until we all get the news.
At least we know we won’t be told until November.
God knows how this will all play out. There’s too many variables at this stage to be sure.