What To Do With: Elliott Whitehead

This is our off-season series on some key decisions facing the Raiders. Some will be people, some will be less tangible, but all are issues that the Milk will need to address this off-season.

BY DAN

By the end of 2021 it felt like Elliott Whitehead had taken everything from his body, every drop of sweat, every sinew of muscle fibre, every ounce of blood in his system, and offered it to the Canberra Raiders.

After that season we noted that he’d had his least impressive season for the club and wondered just what he had left to give, and what his role would be going forward. Given he’d played nearly every game over his career, that he missed three down the stretch of 2021 felt like an earth-shattering event. Suddenly this man, who to that point had been impervious to fatigue, pain, and a anything approaching ageing looked vulnerable. He’d taken over the captaincy during chaos, somehow keeping a ship afloat that was short a hull, keel, a mizzen and a host of other boat parts I just googled.

So when faced with the question of what to do with an ageing Whitehead, the Raiders made a role just for him (and maybe Josh Hodgson, we’ll never know) – the point forward. A middle determining key aspects of the attack. You could see the logic – Whitehead was slowing down, so embrace the change, and allow him to utilise his best skills creating in the middle with a host of rampaging big guys around him. He wouldn’t be needed to cover for everyone in defence. He wouldn’t need to work his body for 80 minutes each week. He could transition to a different style of existence not so reliant on agility, dynamism and endurance.

Shifting to the middle would require a change in body shape – when you’re going to be defending in the middle all year you move away from pace to bulk. That’s not a big deal for younger players. People Hudson Young could probably shift around the entire pack with ease. But for an older player it’s a challenge. Whitehead looked bigger (and slower) in 2022, prepared for season of tackling people like Jason Taumalolo or Payne Haas instead of five-eighths and backrowers.

What the Raiders had asked of him in his career to that point was borderline unreasonable. Do all the dirty work, destroy your body, be the calm in the storm. Now it took on another challenge: take on the big boys, in a role everyone knows you hate. For the good of the club. Of course Elliott took it on, only for it to be abandoned after a matter of weeks. Now he was shifting back without an off-season to prepare. He’d gone from edge to middle to edge, all while trying to hold on to the athletic ability that had once been plentiful enough, but was now had a shelf life.

It must have worn him out, and nowhere was that better displayed than when his best game of the season (and arguably some seasons) came in the final against Melbourne, after he’d had a week off in preparation. Apart from that game though his season was no better than 2021, and in some cases worse. Statistically he made the lowest number of tackles he’s made in any season for the Milk. He ran for the fewest metres. He had the same number of tackle breaks as Semi Valemei in 14 more games. He wasn’t credited with a try-assist all year, which I dunno man, I swear I remember him putting Corey Harawira-Naera in early in the year…was that a trial? I digress. The point is it confirmed 2021’s downward trajectory

Whitehead moved back to the edge because (I suspect) Coach Stuart preferred his leadership and defensive abilities over Corey Harawira-Naera’s tantalising lines and blinkered defence. The result was a right-edge that relied almost exclusively on Matt Timoko to be the weapon for Jamal Fogarty to use on his shoulder on a hard line. Whitehead did get used on lines, but as soon as he had ball in hand, defences were able to cover and adjust. It looked like a feel every time I make a break in touch footy – just a dude with no wheels waiting for the defence to envelope him. It rarely felt like an outside defender was every worried that the inside cover wouldn’t grab Smell.

Where to now? That pace he didn’t have in 2022 was partly because of the lack of preparation for 2022, but it would be an excessive optimist to expect it will come back with rest and a proper pre-season. After all, he’s heading home for a World Cup, which only ensures that he’ll have less rest than he normally would. From the look of the English squad, he’ll be playing almost exclusively on the edge, for what it’s worth.

Whitehead still has two more years on his deal, so it’s best if he’s utilised to his fullest potential, for him and for the club. At the moment he’s the solution on the right edge only because there isn’t another option. If the Raiders had signed Eli Katoa as they tried, or if Adam Elliott stayed, or if Harawira-Naera was a more reliable edge defender, perhaps Whitehead the second-rower would no longer be the choice. He’s also captain until he presumably starts sharing it for the new season with Joe Tapine. Everything feels temporary, and it’s hardly befitting what he’s given to the club, and the people of Canberra.

The next few weeks will be instructive as to how the Green Machine intends to use him. They still have a gap at 13 for next season, just as they do, potentially, on the right edge. Where Whitehead ends up may be determined by what’s available in the market, and the performance of the Raiders youth in the off and pre-season. Should the Raiders find a starting quality edge on the market it may shift Whitehead back to the middle. Should Trey Mooney demand minutes at 13 through his performances this summer it may keep Whitehead may stay where he is.

In the past we have noted that it was Elliott that was asked to sacrifice for the club. It’s not quite so clear anymore that’s the case. Instead of sacrificing his top performance to ensure the club’s ceiling is higher, he’ll be the same as any other player – simply fitting in where he’s best used. It’s not glamourous last period of his career, but they rarely are.

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4 comments

  1. Either this year or the next I see him transitioning to a bench role where he can come on and fill in at 11,12 or 13.
    Maybe he ends up job sharing with Corey HN and both of them can deliver a more impactful performance than in recent times. Of course that would require Ricky getting a little more creative with his rotations than he has been in the past.

    Like

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