Whatever your feelings about the likelihood of Canberra’s chase of David Fifita, there’s little doubt it represents a substantial shift in mind-set. A big-money offer to a noteworthy and polarising potential free agent hasn’t been part of their modus operandi for a while. So what does it tell us about where the side is at?
The wooing of Fifita is a different beast for the Milk in a variety of ways. Canberra doesn’t normally conduct it’s recruitment so openly – a point we’ve made before. In the attempt to acquire Fifita, the Raiders have been relatively open and honest (as far as a football team can be) about their desire for the Titans’ star. They’ve seemingly articulated their strategy to recruit him to the media (and presumably Fifita himself), and even involved the players in making the case for him joining the club. But that’s not the only new part. In the past they’ve worked in the margins to secure distressed assets or overlooked talent bases (Queensland in the 80s, New Zealand in the 90s, and more recently England) to find future superstars rather than dive into the thick of the free-agency battle between the big clubs. Putting a pitch of big money to an existing star is not something the Raiders normally do.
The obvious interpretations of this approach is that this represents an ‘all-in’ from the Raiders brains trust. Pushing their chips into the middle and putting their billiard balls on the table. One does not simply lay 900k on the table for the fun of it. It would be as high as any player Canberra are paying (depending on who you believe on how much Jack Wighton earns), and would basically be a straight swap (and maybe a little bit more) for the money that they used to pay for Josh Hodgson. It’s hard to say the Milk would see him as integral to the success of the side as those parts (or Joe Tapine who would be on about 850k), but that’s the tax it would take to get him to town. You can have him for 900, or not at all. You choose.
The risk associated with paying a player that much would have ramifications. We highlighted that Brad Schneider and Harley Smith-Shields are off contract at the same time as a new deal with Fifita would start. It’s always impossible to tell because of the opaque nature of Australian sports’ contract arrangements, but it’s possible that signing Fifita puts these players at risk. Given their obvious talent that’s a real and important consideration for the Milk. Of course they may not be – the money that went out the door at the end of the 2022 season may as yet be unallocated (though I doubt it). Regardless, the opportunity cost of putting that much cash into getting a star, but hardly a sure thing, is substantial.
If Canberra get Fifita (and oh my god that IF is as big as Mal Meninga’s thighs and still as likely as his political career), it locks them into a pathway with this team. Essentially it is saying that Fifita is the difference between them and the top echelon. There’s merit to this. The Raiders were a top 8 team and on wins and losses were only a poor period at the start of the year away from being alongside the contenders on the table. They’ve got all their major parts coming back from last season, with more experience and time to build cohesion and connection. Their best years in recent times have been built on winning through the middle with rambunctious middles and desperate defence. Points have been built from opportunistic and talented players on the edges. In a sense Fifita would just be the right-hand-side equivalent of Hudson Young, though with less grubbers and no look passes, and more sheer physical dominance.
In addition, it would seem the Canberra brains trust that they think Fifita is a good fit, and a proper “needle-mover”. Adding Fifita will fill a gap on the right side, not only adding an elite weapon to the Milk’s edge attack but also helping fill the only other significant question (the lock position) the squad faces going into 2023 by shifting edge players like Elliott Whitehead and Corey Harawira-Naera into the middle. The Titan doesn’t need to be the focus of the attack – indeed he’s probably better when he’s a luxury rather than a staple – which means the left-side can continue its growth, but he also offers an ability to turn nothing into a whole lotta love in a flash.
Whether Fifita is a good fit for the side and a bridge to success remains to be seen (and may never eventuate). An alternative viewpoint is that this is the final act of desperation of a side contemplating a window that closed before they were ready. It’s not a happy thought, but potentially Canberra is reaching for a name rather than a player and a fit, in the hope of a cover for the fact that they’ve been unable to inject structure and consistency in their attack. It may be more like the early Stuart era, when all he did was talk about how he’d like to sign some good players, while other players’ careers lived and died under his watch. The things that made the Milk great since then were born from spine players that are no longer with the side. Fifita would be walking into the same issue he faces at the Titans: being relied on too often to cover for the ills of the coaching staff’s inability to build success around him. Thanks, I hate it.
That, unfortunately, is the gamble aspect of this. Don Furner, list manager Joel Carbone and Coach Stuart need to be honest about where they think this side is. 900k on a Lamborghini isn’t much point if the Raiders are using it to bush-bash. They need to be sure there is the road to the top is paved with more than hope and nostalgia. Fifita isn’t perfect – even when Canberra are eating at the adult’s table they’re still dealing with distressed assets – but at his best he could be the perfect fit for a side that needs to add nitrous to the engine mix. At it’s worse it could lock the Milk into mediocrity over the medium term while sacrificing talent painstakingly developed in recent years.
But Canberra shouldn’t fear mediocrity. The post-golden era Raiders have been moulded by it. If this doesn’t work out they would return to status quo, the team we know and love, always watching the fun stuff from the outside, and hoping that one year in a few turns out to be the year they fashion a late year run, a fun final game and enough excitement to allow us to dream of better times. If it does work out though, well, it could be just the thing they need to take the leap into those names at the top, back to where they were for that one brief period where grown men cried because the Canberra fucking Raiders where in the grand final. That’s the gamble. That’s the swing. That’s why they need to give it a shot.
Of course, this could all be a discussion in the mirror. Fifita may not seriously be contemplating Canberra. It’s impossible to tell from the reporting if he’s seriously considering the Raiders or just looking to make sure he maximises the amount he’s paid to stay close to the beach. We could just be thousands of crazy fans rambling like someone having a conversation with themselves in public, completely separated from reality. Just remember, we look less crazy if we stick together. The longer this goes the less sure we are of our initial assessment of a simple Raider Raise, though we stay in this is more-dream-than-reality camp for now.
But if this is for real then it’s a big swing. It could make this generation of the Raiders. Or it could be another cautionary tale that people tell about small clubs trying to make it big. Let’s hope Canberra have got it right.
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