$900,000 man?

BY DAN

The Raiders chase of David Fifita keeps on keeping on. As part of this pursuit, Canberra have upped their market range, reportedly moving their offer to 900k, accoding to the good people at the NewsCorp publication Code Sports. It’s an ‘all-in’ bet by the Milk. But is it enough to move them into the top echelon of teams? Or is the risk too great?

We’ve been following the Raiders chase of David Fifita closely in these pages (a little too closely for some, but that’s our jam baby!) so when the Murdoch media got their hands on the matter it was hardly new news. The combination of this pursuit with that of Jillaroo and World Cup star Shaylee Bent as part of the NRLW team was not a revelation, nor was the belief of Titans Coach Justin Holbrook that they would keep the star forward (though, as we noted this week, the clubs insistence it was in the chase for Jeremiah Nanai, undermines that belief).

But the insistence that Canberra was prepared to offer $2.7m over three years to Fifita was news to us. Much of the discourse had put his market value at around 750k, and the Titans had reportedly been expecting to retain him for around 700k a year. Given the cap is likely rising for next year and over the near future, this always felt like optimism masquerading as cold-hearted economic rationalism. With Fifita’s skill level, and his performance for the Broncos and at Origin level, it was always clear that teams that felt they could put elite players around him would value his game-changing ability.

Canberra’s 900k a year is an interesting question for the club. We noted before that by our best guesstimate they had a bit of coin (around $1.8m) floating around with the departures of Josh Hodgson, Ryan Sutton, Adam Elliott, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Harry Rushton. With Joe Tapine getting a bigger deal, the addition of Pasami Saulo and probably Danny Levi (though in what capacity seems to be correlated to Fifita), it felt like the Raiders weren’t really close to maximising their cap spend. We weren’t sure if Canberra had the space to go to 900k.

But with more players coming off the cap at the end of 2023 and no other free-agency options available, it’s conceivable that 900k isn’t a bridge too far. Opportunity cost is about what you would have spent the money on otherwise. The Milk simply do not have access to other elite talent. This is a rare chance to snare one – however likely that may be – and in doing so paying ‘overs’ is likely to accompany any deal. Sometimes we pay that up front (see Joey Taps) and hurt on the back end. Sometimes you pay over the start with and reap the rewards when it goes right. That money would otherwise likely be spent on two or three players who don’t equal one David Fifita.

There’s plenty of risk to this, there’s no doubt. You and me can go back and forth about hypotheticals, but the people that make these decisions have to weigh what they’re willing to risk to bridge the gap between also-ran and promise land. The Fifita that we saw over the last two years isn’t worth 700k let alone 900. There’s always a chance that the Milk put a huge chunk of change into acquiring Fifita and it doesn’t pay off, and they just inherit the Titans problem. That would likely put a pin in any outlandish hopes you might have of Canberra competing for titles in the short-term and in the longer term could risk retaining the talent it already has (such as potentially Harley Smith-Shields and Brad Schneider, who both come off the cap after 2023). There’s a chance that they upset the ‘team-first’ identity the pack has built over recent years, a selflessness embodied in captain Elliott Whitehead’s willingness to move where is needed (something that he, and maybe new star Hudson Young, may both have to do if Fifita is placed on the left hand side as he has often played). That he might become the highest paid player in the side (or at least equal to Jack depending on how you count) requires man management that Ricky Stuart has a mixed record with.

Undoubtedly it’s a huge move and your comfort with it is determined by how close you think the Raiders are to the best teams. The problem the Titans had was that they wanted Fifita to be the solution to their problems, rather than the expression of their success. Fifita will succeed as the cherry-on-top, not the be-all-and-end-all of a side’s attack. 900k doesn’t remove that target from his back, but in the presence of Joe Tapine, Josh Papalii, Hudson Young, Jack Wighton and others he may find the structure and culture he needs to succeed. We’ve seen this with the Broncos and Queensland. With the Green Machine he wouldn’t be asked to do and be everything for the club. He’d be a weapon no doubt, but alongside a host of others worthy of focus.

Importantly he would provide a weapon that would complement the side perfectly. The Milk desperately need someone on the right side that can threaten the defence, opening up the game for Jamal Fogarty, Matt Timoko and Jordan Rapana. So much of Canberra’s attack felt stifled last year because of the lack of viable line-breaking threat at right second row. Unfortunately existing options either aren’t powerful enough line-runners, or aren’t sufficient in defence. At his best Fifita is elite at both. That it would also solve Canberra’s 13 problem by shifting captain Whitehead and Corey Harawira-Naera to lock is a further benefit. Already you’ve fixed two problems with one signature. Suddenly the Raiders go from being a side with questions to being a side with potential. It makes sense.

Only time will tell if this is a realistic pursuit. Of course our concerns bout the Raiders Raise being in effect would only be exacerbated by the Milk’s jump in available cash. But the fact that Code Sports also reported that Fifita is touring the facilities (and picking up slack), suggests this hope, while still unlikely, isn’t in vain. One hopes that Canberra is putting on the weather.

Do me a favour and like the page on Facebook,  follow me on Twitter, or share this on social media and I’ll show you how I can do the dance from the Men In Black song. Don’t hesitate to send us feedback (dan@sportress.org) or comment below if you think we are stupid. Or if we’re not.

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