The Canberra Raiders begun the process of addressing some of their gaps for 2023, with the the Daily Telegraph reporting they had signed Pasami Saulo on a two year deal. Update: this is now confirmed by the club.
Right now you’re probably asking yourself ‘who?’ and that’s fair enough. Saulo is 24, and over his five year career with the Newcastle Knights he’s yet to play the majority of the season in the top grade. In fact, this year where he’s managed 10 games, primarily off the bench, is somewhat of a banner season for him. He suffered a horrendous ankle injury in 2021 (if you haven’t seen it don’t go looking for it), and so it’s been a minor miracle that he’s performed as well as he has since.
In limited opportunities in the top line Saulo has proven himself a hard-working high-energy player. Saulo ranked first in the competition in round 19 (and second in round 9) on The Rugby League Eye Test’s involvement metric, a number that measure the rate of runs and tackles a player makes adjusted for minutes and possession. No Raider has topped that number this season (nor at all I *think* since it was created), so it’s a good indication of the need he’s addressing. With Adam Elliott walking out the door, the Milk’s pack could use a player with a bit of juice. Saulo is also a relatively mobile, rangy player too. The kind Canberra once snuck away from Newcastle before (Ok don’t get carried away). While I would loathe to start him there anytime soon, he could project as a mobile big man to play minutes at thirteen.
While he’s provided high-energy in short minutes in the top line (he’s yet to play more than 37 minutes in a game this season), there’s a consistency of output in NSW Cup that suggests he can be more than that. At just 24, with a freak injury having delayed his development, and with limited opportunities behind the big names in the Newcastle pack, it’s not hard to see why he hasn’t been able to find a bigger role. Canberra are taking an educated guess that a pathway to first grade is part of what he needs.
It’s a fair punt for the Milk to take. Saulo is young, mobile, and talented. His two-year deal will come cheap. There’s enough there to suggest he’s more than just a squad filler, but if he isn’t then there’s no big risk. He’ll be competing with Ata Mariota and Peter Hola for opportunities as the ‘next’ props after Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler. It’s not going to turn heads, but it’s a gap that needed filling. And when you look around at rosters around the league, there’s heaps of players that just needed an opportunity. Look at how Royce Hunt is going in Cronulla.
This is only the start of a big off-season for Canberra, and they’ve started with a play right out of the Raiders playbook. Picking up a distressed asset on the edge of a roster. Making a play on the potential and hoping for the best. It’s the easiest step for the Milk to take at this stage, but still a good one. They still need to work out what they’re going to do with their starting lock next season, or their right edge second-rower. They also need a more certain solution as a middle forward than Saulo. Papalii, Tapine and Horsburgh are the top tier but after that it’s just hope and potential. Saulo adds to that good vibes and future thoughts, but he’s not a certain member of the 17.
Hopefully there’s more to come. These solutions are harder to find, and I suspect Canberra are waiting to see if some trees get shaken in the off-season and a more established player or two falls out (like when they picked up Adam Elliott before this season). There’s a few clubs around with a bit of chaos, and with some luck Canberra could be the new home to a dissatisfied player. It’s worth considering, but I hope it’s not their only strategy. There’s needs to address that require pro-active recruitment, and given the Milk don’t have someone managing recruitment, well, I hope Don is good at doing multiple jobs.
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