After the Canberra Raiders lost to the Dragons, things were looking pretty dark, and it wasn’t just the weather. At that point it felt like their finals aspirations mostly out of their own hands. More accurately those playoff hopes had been fumbled away by Jack Wighton in a mistake-laden performance.
Most call it a Bad Jack game or something similar. These sorts of games come up occasionally from a player who’s talent is accompanied by adjectives like “mercurial” or “natural”. These are ways to describe the performance of a player that is unconventional and inconsistent. However you wanted to describe his seven errors in the Dragons game, including failing to find touch on a crucial penalty late, it wasn’t what you’d expect from a team leader in a critical game.
And so Canberra’s season hung by a thread, one loosened by the performance of the person that should have been been at the centre of tying it off (sorry does that make sense? I’l just wear clothes I don’t make them). It was a very Jack moment. For years we’ve taken his additions as a bonus, even as they’ve delivered us to grand finals and other successes. He was the cherry on top, not the driving force. So when that cherry turned sour in the Dragons game we accepted it with a shrug and wistful look to the future in hope of better times.
But since that moment it seems Jack has taken it upon himself to right the ship for the Raiders. The stats tell some of the story. Near enough to 100 metres on the ground per game. A try assist, a line break, a forced drop-out, a 40/20, 14 tackle breaks over the last three games. It’s not bad, but it’s not out of the ordinary. Probably the more relevant statistic out of everything was that the Milk came away with three wins.
That it’s not captured in the statistics says more about the countables the NRL produces than Jack’s performance. He’s contributions are sometimes hard to quantify. His (and Hudson Young’s) defence in the Storm game was a massive part of that victory. Their aggression took all the space away from Jerome Hughes, yet they still came away with eight missed tackles between them. Jack had four crucial kicks to spark the comeback against the Warriors, yet it reads as one 40/20 and one forced restart. And then against the Titans, he was credited with one try assist, when he started almost every movement that resulted in points.
Sometimes the brutality of his game can obscure the quite creativity he can play with. Witness the try he created for Timoko.
The in-and-away he puts on the Titans defence is what draws the attention of Tannah Boyd, creating the gap that Timoko runs through.
Other times his contribution is obscured by the flashier contributions of others. His smart kicks throughout the game yesterday didn’t earn repeat sets or 40/20s, but they did continually pin the Titans in the corner. Part of the reasons teams target the Raiders’ right side so relentlessly is because there’s no point running at Wighton. Even the tries he helped create yesterday had the beautiful flick passes of Hudson Young to steal the limelight.
What he has provided is an ownership of the moment. A quiet leadership over the last three weeks. It’s not a Mark Taylor tactician, but Wighton has recognised moments when he needed to step up and take control. Shutting down Jerome Hughes. The second half kicking against the Warriors. Wearing the Titans out in the corners through the second half. It’s only three weeks in a row, but it’s enough to wonder if Jack is maturing as a footballer.
And while Canberra has been unable to find a full 80 minutes of consistent footy, over the last three weeks Jack has been edging closer to this mark. His improving relationship with Jamal Fogarty is part of this story. Clearly sharing some of the load suits him better, and their growing understanding is allowing him to pop up in places he doesn’t normally (like inside Fogarty, or on the right like in the above try). Partly it’s his growing combination with Young and Seb Kris, and their consistent football. This has given him players outside him he trusts to see the same things as he does, a feature of his previous partnership with Jarrod Croker and Elliiott Whitehead.
All these things have helped but it’s Jack that has been the central presence in all this. It’s a different vibe to his other periods of dominance. Back then his brilliance was supported by a foundation of veterans around him making sure things happen. This is a different side, and Wighton is a more rounded player. He’ll still have a Bad Jack day every now and then, but if the last three weeks are anything to go by, he’s also taking providing more of the foundation that allows others to flourish.
But then it might just be a good period. Against the Panthers the Milk will face a side that will not give them points like the Titans and Warriors did. They won’t blow opportunities like the Storm did. Even without Nathan Cleary and Jerome Luai they’ll be very difficult to overcome. Canberra have lost this game many times before. But if Wighton can continue the pathway he’s forged over the last few weeks, maybe the Raiders can sneak a win. And then, well, anything is possible.
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