It’s silly not to hope. It’s a sin he thought.Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”.
In all likelihood the Canberra Raiders are not going to sign David Fifita. You know all the reasons. We outlined them here. The Raiders, despite being based in the greatest city on earth, find it hard to attract top tier talent away from the shinier lights of other cities. Players attracted to the myth or familiarity of lifestyle in Sydney or Brisbane stay in that lane (someone should tell them Canberra now has a beach!). Canberra only brings the rural NSW players, the overseas players, or those forgotten by the league. It’s why the Milk haven’t signed a big name free agent since Bob Hawke was Prime Minister.
Nevertheless they persist. The pursuit of David Fifita remains, as noble as it is futile (update: and Don Furner has since confirmed it’s real). It’s been fascinating that the battle for Fifita’s services has entered a fourth week. It came up again on Sydney footy radio late last week. We had assumed that the rumoured interest was merely an example of the Raider Raise, and that the Queensland Origin forward was really choosing between the Titans and the Broncos, and just trying to make sure whoever acquired him would be doing at the highest market value possible. Now the news is Canberra, but also the Dragons and the Bunnies also in the mix (my personal ranking of likelihood is Titans, Bunnies, Raiders, Dragons).
The Canberra pitch is intrinsically tied to their pursuit of David Fifita’s partner, Shaylee Bent, who is reported to have signed with the Milk (per David Riccio’s). Much like Adam Elliott left when Millie Boyle signed with Newcastle, perhaps Fifita would leave the Titans to be with his partner?
In a playing sense Fifita would be a perfect fit for the Milk. He’d likely start at right edge, fixing the Raiders issue there, while also building the depth at 13 they are lacking. Fifita would provide Jamal Fogarty with two players outside him that can break tackles at will, allowing him much more space to run, and much more consistent. With the talent he has at his disposal, he liable to create five or six tries across the season by himself (and hopefully with more defensive effort than he showed at the Titans so as to not wipe out that advantage going the other way). He’d be an upside talent that provides a singular weapon that, if deployed smartly, changes the upside tint of this side from solid to potentially spectacular – suddenly Canberra’s edges go from bumpy to brilliant. If the rumours of getting that at 750k are true – particularly in light of a salary cap that is likely to rise in the near future – it would be unquestionably a win for the Green Machine.
Of course there are risks. His effort levels at the Titans were poor. It often felt like this was a reflection of a level of confusion and disillusionment with a coaching and organisational structure that seemed to have a plan that was basically “hope David fixes it”. This applied to their attack where they would flop the ball to him without shape or structure and watch him go to work, but it also represented a short-cut to legitimacy and success for the organisation. Building a successful club around him has been beyond the Titans. I would be worried that the Raiders wouldn’t provide Fifita an attacking structure necessary to extra the best of his potential, because, well, it’s been a while since they’ve had an attacking structure.
But I doubt Canberra would treat his signature as a short cut in the same way that the Titans did. For starters there’s a more established culture of success. I know that feels silly to say, but the Milk have won finals in three of their last four seasons, have played three preliminary finals in their last seven, and haven’t finished lower than 10th since 2015. For all his faults Ricky Stuart guarantees a level of effort and maybe even success that would hopefully hold Fifita to account. When Jamal Fogarty signed with the Raiders he made it clear one of the key draws was Stuart’s frankness about the areas of his game that needed improvement. One would hope a similar conversation would be had with Fifita. And one would hope that the leadership of Joe Tapine and others around him would be sufficient to ensure the commitment needed for Fifita to be at his best.
A major challenge seems to be money. It’s obviously hard to tell because of the lack of transparency around player pay, but my feeling is that the current cut-rate asking price of $750k a season is about the most the Raiders could offer and remain under the cap. That would be ok with any other player, but with a talent like Fifita it’s hard to see a situation where neither the Titans or the other competition offer him well beyond that number. For the Titans it just feels like too big of a fish to let go, even if in the long run it may be best for both player and club. The main draw for Canberra remains fit, both on-field and off. Indeed as reader Christopher wrote to me during the week, a marquee offer for Bent well in excess of what she could earn elsewhere may mitigate the financial difference between Fifita’s offers with the Milk and elsewhere. It’s hard to know whether this could be a new recruitment strategy. Perhaps that was the approach the Knights took. Instinctively it feels like something that if done in Canberra would draw the interest of NRL HQ.
Despite the hope and prayer nature of it all, it feels like the Raiders are holding out space for the dream to become reality. According to The Canberra Times, Don Furner noted yesterday that while the club had filled it’s 30 man roster for the 2023 season (in confirmation of the acquisition of backup backup backup hooker Danny Levi), there remained flexibility to re-organise the roster to accommodate another signature, depending on the outcome of the salary cap negotiations. Whether that’s to get Fifita or another backrower remains to be seen, but the Green Machine are clearly open to the possibility.
To re-iterate it seems brazenly silly to bank on this acquisition but the longer the smoke exists the more I tend to think there’s small but hearty fire. It remains unlikely to happen, but one can’t help but hope.
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