The Canberra Raiders got rubbish news when Adam Elliott only made it part way through the tremendous victory over the Storm. It was later revealed he had an injury to his pubic bone, which in addition to sounding very painful, also means he is unlikely to play in the second week of the finals.
As NRL Physio posted, even if Elliott escapes the dreaded fracture that would likely rule him out for the season even if the Raiders progress, it’s a difficult injury to play through (I don’t know if needling is an option because I’m not a doctor, but if anyone knows how painful one in that area it would be, it’s Sticky). Michael Carayannis of the Daily Telegraph went a step further and said Elliott was almost certain to not play.
It’s such a shame because Elliott has been such an important part of the Raiders success this year. He’s been the perfect change of pace and style to players like Papalii, Guler and Horburgh. He’s tied the middle to the edge with both his passing game, and his ability to use pace to get outside the big men. As a defender he’s been rock solid in the middle (though slightly less impressive defending on the right edge when he’s been asked). When it was revealed the Knights had signed him, it was disappointing, partly because the Raiders had saved his career and then he’d left, but also because he was just such a perfect fit.
How the Raiders go about filling that is interesting for two reasons.
Firstly, there’s the immediate problem of addressing the short term problem. It’s a test of the Raiders depth, and there’s really only one obvious option. Corey Harawira-Naera filled in there for good chunks of Saturday’s game, and offers a slightly different mix of the same variability theme. He’s fast, and has great agility. He’s not necessarily the ball-player in the line that Elliott is, but his offload is as good as they come. He’s also played pretty manageable minutes in the back half of the season, meaning he’s probably pretty fresh.
Harawira-Naera would obviously not man the role for 80 minutes, and in fact I would be surprised if he started. The Eels are a big pack, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Coach Stuart decides to start three big men in the middle to combat Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Junior Paulo for the opening stanzas. Corey Horsburgh and Joey Taps offer enough lateral agility to make sure the Milk aren’t just three boulders waiting to be runaround, but one would think the first rotation after that would be to bring on Harawira-Naera.
The benefit of Harawira-Naera is that he can play this role, but he can also provide flexibility to the roster. He can spell Smell on the edge (though why would you if Whitehead is going to bring sexy (back-row play) back like he did on the weekend). From the bench he also provides cover for backs, meaning Canberra can carry another big middle (such as Ata Mariota). For his part Mariota hasn’t played since late August, but that’s where Canberra’s depth chart is at right now. No Sutton, no Rushton, and no Elliott mean the Milk are running on empty for prospective replacements at 13. By using Harawira-Naera there they can mix and match on their bench to meet their needs, and not need that extra middle to play massive minutes.
That’s the short term solution but I’ll also be watching to see how the Raiders fill this position because their might be hints at what the plans are for next year. The thirteen position has been one of change for the Milk this year. At the start of the year it was to be filled by Elliott Whitehead and probably Josh Hodgson (alas six minutes were not enough to work that out definitively) in ball-playing roles. That didn’t last long. Then Ryan Sutton has played minutes in that role, and Harry Rushton figured to be part of the next generation before deciding England was where he future lay. Over the season Adam Elliott made the role his own, utilising high-energy running, excellent short passing and a bit of pace and agility to test defenders laterally.
Canberra has used a few models to address the gap. The role is no longer a glorified prop as it once was. But it’s also not point-forward the Raiders envisioned it to be before round 1. It’s a halfway house keeping the defence honest by being a comfortable link between the middle and the edge. It’s about adding some pace and space variability to the Milk’s one-two punch of Papalii and Tapine. Harawira-Naera is the short term solution for now, but it that’s more out of the demands of the moment than the best case scenario for the team.
But playing Harawira-Naera there would be the best indication that players like newly signed Pasami Saulo and star-to-be Trey Mooney may be considered to play major minutes at the position next year. Both are too agile and mobile to be ‘just’ props (indeed Canberra have spent much time making Mooney into a edge backrower – we’ll have to see how that plays out, dude looks like a middle to me). Both have the ability to do some of the things that Elliott and Harawira-Naera have done for the club (though not as the linking pass through the middle, but so many of the Milk’s big men have improved so markedly in that space it’s not so much needed). It seems smart to strongly consider them at the position.
But that’s tomorrow’s problem. Canberra have a more immediate issue if and a final to win. If Adam Elliott can’t go this weekend, the solution seems to me to be more Corey Harawira-Naera.
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