If there’s a tough gig for rugby league coaches and list managers, it’s it’s working out when a player’s time is up. Where is that nefarious and depressing line? How do you tell that an elite player is at the end of his time?
Generally the Raiders under Ricky Stuart have been pretty good at this, and as we’ve noted so many times, the players the Milk have pushed out the door have rarely come back to bite them. Sometimes they keep players contracted longer than they need, but when the press the eject button, it’s justified.
The Raiders have a host of signing decisions to make over the near future. Harley Smith-Shields is an enigma that will be chased by others outside Canberra. Brad Schneider is a promise that should be kept. Two years since his last deal, Emre Guler is still the world’s biggest question mark. Jack Wighton could sign a deal, could take an option, or I guess none of the above. To varying extents there are uncertainties as far as the eye can see, and they all relate to potential. Embrace the chaos I guess. But only one is related to keeping, or not, someone who may be approaching their football mortality.
No one is unsure about what Jordan Rapana, who’s deal also runs out at the end of 2023, can offer. The only question is how long he can offer it. Rapana has been one of Canberra’s best wingers ever. For a number of years he’s been elite as his position, offering endless yardage metres with a knack for creating something out of nothing. He has been at the centre of everything the Raiders have done in the Stuart reign. When he signed his current deal I described it thus:
Jordan Rapana runs the ball like he’s angry with the ground, the defender, and all the ancestors that brought those two things to be in his way. His fend is more Chong Li than rugby league. He’ll run until he collapses, then he’ll puke out that lactic and run some more. All this has earned him another two years with Canberra.Here
But Jordan is old. He’ll be 33 before the next season is done – the oldest player at the club. As the man, myth and legend Nick Campton pointed out in last season, the only players going around that got a start before him were Andrew McCullough, Aidan Tolman, Kevin Proctor and Wade Graham. Proctor’s since been sent to England, Tolman and McCullough retired, and Graham is increasingly unlikely to start for the Sharks next season, if play first grade at all.
Rapana is likely a first choice starter for the Milk. While he’s destroyed his body over the years, including, and apologies for repeating myself, playing with a broken fucking skull, he’s still performing at a high level. He’s not at the top of his game but he’s surprisingly close. His running metres were the 4th highest of his career. He averaged the most tackle breaks a game out of any Raider not named Nick Cotric. He had the third most line-breaks in the team, and somehow was fourth most in try-assists despite the fact he barely got to touch the ball through the first half of the year. He’s a season removed from winning the Mal Meninga medal, a just reward for a 2021 in which he may have literally been the only good thing.
Rapana will go around again for 2023 and then it’s all questions. How long can he keep it up? It wasn’t revealed in the statistics, but I felt like the first signs of football mortality in Rapana’s play last year. A moment here or there where suddenly the fend didn’t feel as powerful, or the body not as powerfully agile to bounce out of a tackle. It wasn’t constant; it wasn’t even occasional. It may have been a handful of moments, but for the first time in his Canberra career it felt like there was a limit on how much Jordan Rapana’s body could bear. At this stage it’s nothing but confirmation bias – an idea built and then answers searched for. There’s no other evidence in statistics or in the level of reverence the club holds him in. But the feeling is there. Perhaps the mountain top of peak performance was reached, and now his age is bringing him back to mortality. Father time, after all, remains undefeated.
I’m certain he can play next season at a high level but it does present an interesting question for the club. Is he worth extending beyond that point? Is Rapana, aged 33 and above the best they can do at winger? Or is the talent they have identified – like James Schiller, Albert Hopoate, or Manase Kaho ready to take over? There’s an uncertainty to the situation that is exacerbated by the contract, or lack thereof, beyond 2023. Schiller and Hopoate both had moments of looking comfortable in 2022. One would think that if they’re going to make it as first graders, they’ll be ready for regular first-team time. Extending Rapana beyond next season therefore presents a challenge that requires a clear idea of what both he will be capable of and what the next generation is ready for.
I’m sure a caustic and future-focused fan would cut him off at this point, take the win and look to the future. But the reaper has come for Rapana before with little effect. Perhaps age is just a number. Rapana has less miles on his body that the normal 30-something on account of spending five years out of the league early in his career, so maybe we should expect more at the other end. What’s the expiry date on someone who has fought time, circumstance, and anyone in his way, with the swashbuckling determination of Inigo Montoya with a footy under his arm?
While the club works that out we’ll enjoy watching Jordy go around at least one more time. He’ll smash his opposition a few times. He’ll score plenty of tries and create more than he should. And at some point, the people that matter are going to have conversation about where to draw the line.
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