Matt Timoko was named in the extended New Zealand squad to be considered for the Rugby League World Cup this year. It’s a worthy recognition of a player that has become an unquestioned starter for the Canberra Raiders.
The discourse around Timoko has been fascinating. He burst onto the scene in 2021, proving a strong carry and a stronger parry, with better defence than people realised. He seemed more mature than his years should have allowed and his performance was one of the few highlights of a tumultuous season for the Milk. In just 9 games (and two in 2020 – including the Baby Raiders game) it became clear he had plenty of talent. By the time the Raiders had extended him in 2021 it seemed like the Raiders had successfully turned that talent into a sure thing.
But then coming into the 2022 season professional observers suggested the Raiders had better options at centre. Timoko was all-too-often the player left out of predicted 17s, proving forever that those lists are worth less than the views of [insert least favourite NRL360 talking head here]. A host of other players were preferred, including Jarrod Croker, Seb Kris, and even Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad over the best centre the Raiders had in 2021. It felt like those dark thoughts that go around your head that the Sydney media don’t actually watch the Raiders play were being proven in real time. You’d swear they’d forgotten he’d existed.
Come the start of the season you’ll be shocked to hear that the noise outside Canberra was ignored for the most part with Timoko one of the starting centres. What was confusing is that it was on his ill-preferred left centre position, taking the spot vacated by injuries to both Jarrod Croker and Harley Smith-Shields. It’s amazing to think about in retrospect and hard to work out the thinking of Coach Stuart. When you have such an already solid young performer with so much potential, why complicate his role by throwing him across to the other side of the field to build partnerships and cohesion with players he wouldn’t be with in the long term? To do that so you could make space to take a punt that Semi Valemei would thrive in one of the hardest defensive positions in the game was confusing.
In a sense it was likely an acknowledgement of the assuredness that the club had of Timoko’s maturity as a player. A switch to the other side of the field is hardly building the modern sanitation system, but it’s could be enough to shake the foundations of career still being built. It barely fazed Timoko. In round one he set up the game winning try as part of a slick set play with Hudson Young and Jack Wighton, and he never looked back.
Although his performances were consistent from the get go, Timoko again failed to get recognition for his work. By June he’d already had some cracking games (like the aforementioned round one game where in addition to winning the game he broke 8 tackles) but apparently still, no one was noticing. Somehow he missed out for the New Zealand mid-year test squad. It was more galling when it became clear that the NZRL had named every Kiwi in the competition except Timoko, and ended up playing a second-rower at centre.
If it wasn’t initially recognised by the commentariat, or the Kiwi selectors, 2022 proved his worth to the club. He ran for more metres than any Raider other than Josh Papalii or Joe Tapine. Nic Cotric was the only back with more tackle breaks. He picked up nine tries and five try-assists, and improved his defence despite shifting sides and partners throughout the season. He achieved all that despite for large chunks of the year sitting on a side of the field ignored in attack. When Jamal Fogarty got more involved we got a better idea of what the tips of his potential looked like as he got more chances in space. And of course that all crested when he made Cameron Munster look like the rookie taking on the star when he threw him to the ground in the elimination final.
Even when he couldn’t be a part of a flowing attack Timoko found a way to contribute. He relished yardage work. A big part of those metre numbers came from difficult runs in challenging circumstances coming off the Canberra line. So often you would see a game where it seemed like he barely touched the ball, and he’d still have 120 metres, almost exclusively in the tough mud. Of the 83 players used at centre in the competition (according to Fox Sports) he had 8th most dummy half runs, the 10th most 1 pass hit-ups, and the 6th most runs of 8+ metres of centres in the competition. This showed how he did the hard work helping out the back three, and he did it wonderfully.
Now, finally, recognition. Timoko signed *another* extension for the Raiders, keeping him at the club until the end of the 2025 season, as long as any player currently contracted at the club (though that may change if Joey Taps signs on). Then last week Timoko was finally named in the extended squad for New Zealand . Let’s just hope they remember his name when it comes time to name the final squad.
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I’d like to see a Timoko-Savage position swap during the pre-season games.