What To Do About: Halfbacks, Today and Tomorrow

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. Part I on Elliott Whitehead can be found here. Part II on Jarrod Croker can be found here.

BY DAN

What’s more important? Certainty or possibility? Is the only thing between Canberra and consistency the cool-head of experience or should the Milk be looking forward to the future? The Raiders face this question over the next twelve months as the search to make a choice at halfback between today and tomorrow.

There are plenty of questions that the Raiders must answer before the next season. What to do with ageing heroes like Elliott Whitehead and Jarrod Croker will be determined by the Milk’s ability to find appropriate replacements. Other challenges, like working out what to do with their lock position and the right backrower depth may require outside help (hi David I’m watching you like Sting). But when it comes to the potential present and future of Canberra’s halfback position, the players are already with the club.

In a sense the question of present has been solved. Jamal Fogarty *right now* is a better player than Brad Schneider. He’s a better fit with the club, providing a bit of veteran leadership and structured guidance around the park for a side in desperate need of it after the departure of Josh Hodgson, the retirement of Sam Williams and the decisions around Aidan Sezer and George Williams. It wasn’t immediate (and first obvious in the first win over the Storm in round 16), but he eventually opened up the Raiders right side attack in a way it hadn’t been in recent times.

This was supported by the stats. Canberra scored 23 points a game with Fogarty as the lead half, less than 17 without him. He led the team in try-assists with 10, was fourth in try involvements (17, behind Jack (23), Hudson (22) and the try-sneak himself, Seb Kris, 19) compared to 3 try assists and around 11 try involvements from non Fogarty right-side halves (that 11 number is a bit rubbery on account of try-involvements not being reported in game stats so I’ve estimated on the high-side). Fogarty had 13 forced drop-outs compared to two for Schneider. Fogarty also kicked dead less (two) than Schneider (three). Fogarty even outgained Schneider (42m per game compared to 34m) which surprised me.

Of course with numbers like that you need a set of caveats so long they could sell pharmaceuticals. The Raiders were bad in the first half of the year and good in the second. Some of that was related to who was playing halfback but a lot of it wasn’t. Joe Tapine was stunning last year but he didn’t really go full beast mode until about round 8 when it was clear *someone* had to do *something*. There’s a million reasons that Canberra’s season changed, and most of them have nothing to do with halfback.

But it’s clear that things got better with a more experienced hand directing the Raiders’ long-ship. It makes sense. At 28 Fogarty is more part of the Jack Wighton, Joey Taps, Josh Papalii vintage. If that era of Green Machine is going to make it big, one would think it would occur with Fogarty at the helm. Fogarty also is what he is. He’s a handy organiser, and the longer he spent in the job the better the Milk’s attack got. If Canberra want to succeed in the short term Fogarty is probably the answer.

But there’s more to it than just next year. Schneider is an intriguing longer term prospect. After being thrown into the deep end when Fogarty got injured he showed skilled, and a remarkable composure for someone that was trying to prove himself after a disjointed previous two years that had no doubt made the jump to the top line even harder. He provided a strong running game and even cracked 100m on the ground in a thunder-and-lightening running (half)back tandem with Jack Wighton in an early season victory against the Titans (a game he sealed with a perfectly weighted grubber for Charnze Nicholl-Klokstad). He also showed confident and improved play when he went back to NSW Cup in the second half of the year.

Normally this would be a perfect scenario. The present and the future, the lead actor and the understudy. Fogarty is on contract for another two years. Brad learns from Jamal, and takes over when the elder statesmen’s contract ends. It’s a role that Fogarty is all to familiar with. The exact same situation saw his departure from the Gold Coast. But Schneider is off contract at the end of 2022. That means teams can circle if they want, and what’s on tape for last year may be enough for another team to take the leap the Raiders aren’t ready to. They’ll need to extend Schneider before Fogarty’s time is up, and while they should be able to do that, they’ll likely be offering (probably slightly inflated) backup money. What’a the cost of paying to keep Schneider? How sure are they that he’s the next big thing?

It’s worth pursuing Schneider over the longer term. I’m curious about his pairing with Adrian Trevilyan over the longer term. They feel like a complementary pair in style of play, and their talent should be unquestioned. But can Canberra make an investment decision based on a handful of first grade games? Circumstances may offer Schneider more opportunities this upcoming season, as they did previously, though in a sense one hopes not. If he’s playing something has gone wrong somewhere else.

All things being equal the Raiders will have to make a decision before those circumstances eventuate. If they sit on their hands then the risk of flirtatious advances from other teams ready to poach Canberra’s next generation increases. Halfbacks and hookers are arguably the most important attacking weapons you can have in modern football, so if Schneider has given them even a hint of being a future star, they need to embrace him. A halfway house – a one year extension – may kick the problem down the road, but that may be all the time that is needed to work out what’s next.

That will create challenges in the years that follow this one, but those are for another day. Right now Canberra’s focus needs to be maximising the present and ensuring the future.

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