Replacing Perfection


If it isn’t a problem did it even happen to the Canberra Raiders?

As if not content with the people of the Milk having a single nice thing this year, the tides of fate may have swept Joe Tapine’s perfect year up into the mire. The injured rib that prevented him from returning to the game on the weekend will keep him out of this week. Even if he’s fit to play in the games to come, it’s likely that it will be medically assisted, and in some degree of pain.

As you may be aware, this season, Joe Tapine has played about as well as a prop forward can. 160 odd metres a game, the best part of 70 post contact. A list of tackle-breaks so long bodies are strewn in his wake like someone’s uncle had too many and joined the kids game at the BBQ. Even his defence has been near perfect, and he’s chipped in with try-assists, try-savers and even just plain old steak and kidney tries.

How on earth do you go about replacing that output? You don’t. You cobble together what you have and hope it works out. And then you hope that sooner rather than later he can play through pain, put his body in a position to get hurt just to help out the others. Because even 80 per cent of Joe Tapine right now is better than most other options. Replacing the performance feels forlorn, but an additional challenge is filling the time. Tapine has played big minutes for the Milk this year, and they’ve increased in recent weeks. It’s become routine to see him punch out 55 plus minutes, and that means in replacing him you’re not so much coming up with a one-for-one replacement. Instead you’re bringing in one person and asking another to take a heavy load.

Canberra should be grateful Corey Horsburgh got through plenty of work in his return to the field in NSW Cup this week. 76 minutes of game time, 20 carries for 199m, 80 post contact, a try-assist, and a team high 43 tackles. The Raiders noted he lost 4-5 kilograms due to his fight with pneumonia. While he was already back to his playing weight, it was pleasing to see him get through so many minutes with so much output. If the club was being conservative with him because of his sickness, they have the evidence they need to move him back to first grade. He joins on the bench, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up playing a role more akin to a starter in terms of minutes. He won’t fill out a full 60 that Tapine might have, but if he’s healthy post pneumonia, forty minutes is realistic.

Emre Guler will also have to take on a bigger role. He’s impressed, though not starred, in his second stint this season, and hopefully us able to continue to provide top-rate output against first string teams. He’s cleared forty minutes in two of the four games since his return (against the Panthers and the Warriors) but only 100m once. Metres aren’t everything, but he’ll need to provide more gross output than that on the weekend. Forty plus minutes and more than a ton on the ground seems a baseline needed for a Milk victory.

This could all be made complicated if Ryan Sutton doesn’t pass his concussion protocols during the week. Sutton is made to fill a role like Tapine’s (well, within reason). He’s always been as good in big minutes as he is in bench rotation minutes. Using him to cover more of the aggregate output and using Guler and the Horse for impact would probably Coach Stuart’s White’s preferred approach. But if Sutton misses out, Ata Mariota or Trey Mooney would likely provide less minutes than Sutton would have. This means an even greater reliance on Guler and Horsburgh.

But we’ve all been waiting since 2019 for that to be the case anyway. It’s weird how we’ve got there, but if you’d asked me once upon a time I would have pointed to now as the point at which those talents had started to take over. A lot has changed since then (including my assessment of their ability to be the big dogs) but here we are, waiting to see how they go as the leaders of the pack.

For Tapine, all we can do is wait. Ribs are about ability to play through pain. As NRL Physio pointed out recently, most players can come back in 1-3 weeks depending on pain tolerance and severity of injury. If the Raiders lose this week, the benefits to rushing Tapine back become smaller and smaller. Why risk his ribs on meaningless regular season games. Treating his body with caution is probably even more important given the sensitivities around his contract negotations.

But those are far off problems. For today Canberra need to win a game to keep their shrinking finals hopes alive. They’re going to have to do it without a prop who has fulfilled his role to about as close to perfection as you can get (as well as a Coach FFS). Every step comes with another challenge for the Green Machine in 2022.

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