It’s been a quiet year for Nic Cotric.
His 105 metres a game are the second lowest of his career. 7 line breaks for the year match his career low, most notably the same amount he had in almost zero opportunities for a turgid Canterbury team last season. His 3.6 tackle breaks are in line with what would be normal for him, so it’s not like it’s a complete failure, but with his return to Canberra more had been expected. There’s a part of him that hasn’t quite been back to his best, as if his experience in Canterbury beat the spark out of him.
When Cotric burst onto the scene back in 2017 it was because he was still a teenager yet somehow as physically developed as any footballer in the game. He was plonked on the wing because that job is physically demanding though not the most cerebrally challenging. Take the ball and find the line. Get the hard yards coming out of your own end. Catch the kicks. It is a bloody difficult job, but it’s a clear path to follow.
He immediately was a quality starter and soon after a rep player, using his big frame to finish tries with that now patented hit-and-spin movement. He was safe under the high ball, and always found a way to find metres in the toughest circumstances. Between him, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, and Jordan Rapana, the Raiders had a rolled-gold back three, capable of getting the Milk out of an array of problems. It was all too perfect.
But then Cotric, like so many of us, wanted to see what his potential was, and what life would be like on the other side of the fence. Coming up the discussions had always been about fullback and right centre, positions that can net bigger pay days than a winger. So he went in search of that, and found it in Canterbury. It was sad to see him go, but sadder to see his decision to leave to play centre punished by Coach Stuart steadfastly refusing to play him at that position despite the Raiders desperately needing one at the back end of 2020.
A difficult season in Canterbury and Nic wanted to come home. Rumours were Stuart made sure part of his return deal was an agreement he’d just play wing. Maybe the lack of room for growth wore him down – some “you’re here forever” Monty Burns gear. Maybe he got used to a different style of ball at the Dogs. But when he came back he just seemed a little less effective, a little less exciting that the previous version. He ran hard, but he wasn’t finding a way to bounce of tackles or scythe through the line. He seemed happy enough under the high ball, but there were notable/comical lapses. It was Nic Cotric, but it felt like 90 per cent of him, as if Gus Gould had taken the other 10 per cent of his soul (he’s not the first…*shakes fist*).
A down period is nothing to worry about. Cotric is still just 23, a bit over two years older than his backups James Schiller and Albert Hopoate. If they’re as good as him in two years the Raiders will be made in the shade. It’s not uncommon to see young players hit the ground running, then take a few years to take the next step. So there was never a reason to panic. Cotric would find his best again.
On the weekend against the Titans he seemed a spirit renewed. He scored twice, and there was the hit-and-spin on the back of a great catch of Hudson Young’s flick pass. He added 150 odd metres, and 60 odd post contact metres, which were second and third most for the season respectively. He got his hands on the ball more than at any other point of the year. But more than just numbers he looked threatening. For the first time all year I expected him to beat the first tackle, or emerge head-first on the other side of the line, finding his belly or more metres. It was just a moment but I wondered if maybe good things were ahead of him again.
It’s hard to know how much to take from a day like that. I cannot explain to you how bad the Titans right edge defence is, but let the Rugby League Eye Test’s weekly player contribution statistic tell the story. This stat is basically a measure of points contribution variance from the average player in the average team. Here’s his top and bottom 10 from last week.
There’s Nic, and Hudson, and Sea-bass and Jack in the top ten. And in the bottom ten there’s Phil Sami and Toby Sexton. Safe to say it was a mismatch. Was this dominance improvement finding another level, or just the continuation of teams taking advantage of the most pathetic defensive module in the competition? Probably the latter but I’m hoping the former.
But that doesn’t mean Cotric isn’t finding that spark again. For all our equivocating, 90 per cent of Nic Cotric is still very good, but it’s that last 10 per cent that makes him special. One game doesn’t make a season, but at least it’s proof his best isn’t far from his grasp. There’s a key period for the Raiders coming. Let’s hope Nic has his groove back.
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