Harley Smith-Shields’ Ticking Clock

BY DAN

Next week teams can steal Harley Smith-Shields.

Well, not so much steal. I mean, given how the Milk have raided the youth set ups of other teams recently and historically, it’s probably a bit rich to use inflammatory language when it comes to the retention or otherwise of local products. But as of 1 November Smith-Shields can negotiate with other teams for a contract for the 2024 season. It’s a challenge all clubs face. Retention of stars isn’t a last minute thing. Preparation and planning is required for roster management in the modern game. Plans about teams need to be made more than a year in advance. Smith-Shields will be with the Raiders through 2023. After that, well, that is up for discussion.

Smith-Shields is to an extent an enigma. The prince who was promised, his potential has been proven in his pathway to first grade, only for its realisation to be put in stasis by heartbreaking injury. First it was his bicep which tore from the bone in 2021, then before 2022 his Anterior Cruciate Ligament failed. Instead of ensconcing his place in the top grade over 2021 and 2022 as was reported and expected, he’s spent the best part of that period watching from the sidelines. 9 NRL games over two seasons, and we’ve hardly had a chance to see just what he’s capable of.

Despite this, he still managed to entice with what he might be. In 2021 he managed just seven games in the top line around his torn bicep, and still managed to win the Raiders rookie of the year award alongside Matt Timoko. He was that impressive, and it felt like he was at the precipice of something special. A young man just ready to take the development of one year and turn it into a more rounded elite product. And then another cruel injury came and now a smart extension signed by the Milk mid-way through 2021 is half way over.

At this stage there’s been no news about progress of a deal, or even if the Milk are seeking to extent him. Canberra have shown that they’ve got this timeline in their minds when it’s come to other talents and have successfully retained a host of other players. Players with similar expiry dates have been addressed for some time. Joe Tapine was the last to re-sign last month, while Xavier Savage, Corey Horsburgh and Corey Harawira-Naera all extended their respective contracts in Canberra earlier in the year. Alongside Brad Schneider, Smith-Shields remains the most prominent talent that is uncontracted after the coming season.

I am sure newly minted Recruitment Manager Joel Carbone has an extension with Smith-Shields at the forefront of his mind, but there are logical reasons that a deal hasn’t been reached yet. There may be hesitancy on both sides to see Smith-Shields prove his body is up to the rigors of top line footy. For the Milk that would mean seeing Harley back on the field and moving at full pace before looking towards a longer term deal. With Seb Kris and Jarrod Croker competing next season for Smith-Shields likely long-term position at left centre, there Raiders may see no rush to put a deal in place. For the player it may be an awareness that right now he would be doing a deal at the bottom of his market value. A few games next season may be all it takes to start a bidding war. With the addition of the Dolphins to the bidding possibilities, it only makes sense to make sure his resume looks it’s shiniest.

Canberra may be reluctant but if Smith-Shields is open to it it would make good business to do a deal as quickly as possible. Warding off potential claimants is one thing, but Smith-Shields is a rare talent. As we wrote when Tapine was up for grabs, it’s unusual that one as gifted as him comes to the Raiders via free agency, so it’s smarter work to make sure the brilliant young players we have never hit the open market. There is a risk of further injury, and it’s possible it’s heightened with Smith-Shields, but the reward of keeping him far outweighs the risk of him leaving or being injured. Indeed, the existence of Seb Kris and Jarrod Croker in sunk costs on the roster means you can take a bit of a risk with Smith-Shields and still be fine if it doesn’t work out.

Add to that the emotional allure of Harley’s place as a local junior. It shouldn’t matter but when an elite talent comes from your own background there’s benefits to proving that the local pathway is as valid and strong as any other. Call it a social licence, but there’s something inspiring about a kid from the nearby ‘burbs making it big. That they could do it with the collective manifestation of Canberra’s soul, the people’s team, is all the more reason to make it happen.

Watching from the outside it seems like business as usual. Harley continues to do his all to be physically ready for next season and the Raiders wait to see what that will look like. But Canberra would be wise to get moving because the clock is ticking.

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it would a massive shame if the milk did not retain Harley local junior unique talent

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