The Canberra Raiders made an unexpected announcement as part of the release of their top 30 for the 2023 season: they are done recruiting. In doing so they’ve revealed a bigger role for the young talent coming through than we previously thought.
The roster, listed here, is what they will be using to lift the premiership cup. It contains 29 names, instead of 30. This is normal in a sense. Clubs usually don’t name a full list at this point. This is to provide space for recruitment and upgrades of players early in the season. Canberra’s 29 though does not include Danny Levi, who has reportedly joined the club on a two year deal. While one might smell a conspiracy – perhaps the Raiders have gotten cold feet on Levi, or warm feet with Trevilyan – it’s more likely that the literal act of signing hasn’t happened yet.
If this is the case and the Raiders have their thirty, it is surprising. The departures of Josh Hodgson, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Ryan Sutton, Adam Elliott and Harry Rushton have only seen Pasami Saulo and potentially Danny Levi come in from the outside in the 30 (Hohepa Puru has also joined the club but outside the 30 on a training deal). Canberra are trusting a new brigade of young men moving up from outside the top 30 to fill those spots. Ata Mariota, Trey Mooney, Peter Hola, Clay Webb, and Harley Smith-Shields all figure to have a much bigger role with the first grade squad than in 2022. This builds on the talent that has already come through in recent years (like Matt Timoko, Xavier Savage, Brad Schneider, Hudson Young, and others). In comes the youth movement as part of the continutually changing guard.
How you feel about this probably depends on your level of optimism. It may be that Canberra looked at their devastating play in NSW Cup and decided they were ready for the big time. Harley Smith-Shields is a talent of unmeasurable potential, and Trey Mooney has been at the precipice of more for two years now. Ata Mariota has the feet and power of Josh Papalii, and looked ready for the top line in a brief outing last year. So it’s not ridiculous to think the young talent is ready.
It could also be that Canberra’s cap situation is such that there was no other option than to fill out the roster with the relative cheap talent provided by youth. I’m not sure what the money has been spent on, given how much came off the cap this off-season. With signatures needed for several young players (and maybe Jordan Rapana) over the next twelve months, perhaps they are keep their powder dry and their bank account stacked in preparation. It’s also worth noting that there was not a lot on the free-agency market worth chasing. Players like Eli Katoa and Pasami Saulo that normally would be targeted during the October ‘shift’ were signed well before the season ended, a situation probably created by the presence of the Dolphins and exacerbated by clubs not wanting to wait for until after the World Cup to settle their rosters.
The challenge is that it undoubtedly puts a lot of pressure on the young players in key positions. Ata Mariota, Peter Hola and Harley Smith-Shields have the safety of experience and talent around them to help. Others are not so lucky. With no replacement for Adam Elliott, Trey Mooney may well play a big role at 13. This may be sharing time with whoever of Corey Harawira-Naera or Elliott Whitehead is given that spot. It may also be as their first back-up if the Raiders decide to go ‘big’ there and play Corey Horsburgh or Pasami Saulo at lock. Either way, Trey Mooney – who played twenty minutes in first grade in 2022 – is now a prominent part of the Raiders solution for their conundrum at lock.
Clay Webb too becomes incredible important. Outside of Hudson Young, Harawira-Naera and Whitehead, he is now the only specialist edge forward. If Harawira-Naera or Whitehead is used at lock, that would mean Webb is just an injury away from starting in the second-row. Webb is a fine talent, but the appearances in Cup footy I saw last season felt like there was more development needed – particularly in the near impossible defensive challenges most edge forwards are asked to solve. But he’s got potential, and now the opportunity to fulfil it.
Ata Mariota, Adrian Trevilyan, Peter Hola and Harley Smith-Shields may have more support around them, but there jobs will still be hard next year, and the step up substantial. While all have tasted first grade, they are hardly sure things. But the talent – for Mariota and Smith-Shields in particular – is unquestionable. But again, an injury here or there and they’ll be part of the first 17 and required to prove they are ready.
It’s quite the gamble but it’s not a bad thing. Whereas one may have hoped that more experienced options were available, the Milk are putting trust in the talent identified and developed by the club. While risky, it’s exciting that the Raiders may think that the talent they have been fostering is ready for the big time. Much like we’ve been certain about Adrian Trevilyan for the best part of a couple of years now, perhaps Canberra are equally sure about Mooney, Webb and others. After years of being an ‘old’ squad, it’s good to see the youth taking over.
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