One of the key factors that drove those heady days of the 2019 season’s success was the emergence of young forwards to turn the bench into a weapon rather than an afterthought.
You might remember at the start of that season Coach Stuart rotated a series of young middles through the bench spots over the first few games of the season. Corey Horsburgh, Ryan Sutton, Hudson Young, Jack Murchie and JJ Collins all got game time on the Raiders bench. This was presumably to get all players top-level experience and test combinations and effectiveness in the heat of the top grade. From that competitive fire emerged Emre Guler and Corey Horsburgh. Hudson Young too became a clear top level starter, despite getting a bit um…gougey…in defence. Ryan Sutton, previously untested in the NRL, established himself as a regular fixture in the top-line.
These were all players at the beginning of their careers. We had hope they were good, but only a smattering of evidence. Guler had been the only one to play a bit of top line footy with the Milk, which he did at the back end of the 2018 season – 3 games in the top line proved that he had enough to succeed in first grade. Sutton came with plaudits as a future representative footballer (a promise he’s yet to fulfil). Horsburgh had come off a relatively successful 2018 for Mounties (14 games averaging about 100 on the ground). Young was less known. But each of these questions were very much answers by the end of the season. Guler and Horsburgh played in the grand final team. Sutton and Young would have pushed for spots had they not been injured (Sutton) or suspended (Young).
The Raiders go into 2023 with a similar set of questions they faced at the end of 2018, and a similar bevy of opportunities. The departures of Sutton and Adam Elliott, and to a lesser extent Harry Rushton and Josh Hodgson, have created opportunities for young forwards coming through. The youth movement is big on talent and less clear on its ability to translate to the top level.
Pasami Saulo is the one with the most game tape. He’s got five years in and out of first grade, hampered by severe and horrifying injury. It’s a gamble in a sense. Paulo has shown good output in limited minutes in the top line, and enough quality efforts in NSW Cup to suggest he’s ready for more. But he’s been stuck behind a Newcastle pack including three Origin middles, Tyson Frizell and Mitch Barnett. It’s no surprise the chances haven’t come yet. When he’s gotten to lay first grade he’s shown an impressive motor (though, over short rotations – he only averaged 22 minutes across his eleven games in 2022). He’s also proven mobile enough to add a bit of athleticism to Canberra’s currently bigger, more traditional, middles.
Trey Mooney is similar. For a couple of years there’s been an understanding among the players, the front-office and the fandom more generally that Mooney is proper talent. A chance to add to Canberra’s elite level forwards like Tapine, Papalii and Young. We only got to see him for 15 minutes or so in the top line last year, and he mentioned how much of a step up it felt – but that could have been part of the challenge of the game (of his 32 running metres, 20 were post contact, suggesting that for the brief period he was on the field the Raiders were at a disadvantage in the middle battle. That’s the problem with small sample sizes and countable stats). The club has been playing him at second row in NSW Cup, which has meant his statistics are a little deflated in that competition. It seems a deliberate strategy to maintain his mobility – when Joel Carbone spoke to Behind the Limelight last year he mentioned that the club sees him as a middle. Like Saulo, Mooney figures to add a bit of mobility to the Canberra middle. There’s a clear opportunity for him there.
Of all these Ata Mariota is the one I’m most certain will be a productive first grader. He’s proven himself repeatedly in NSW Cup – averaging 120 plus metres, good defence and feet so light it makes it awkwardly impossibly to not see so much of Josh Papali’i in what he does. Like Mooney he got a mere sniff of the top line last season, but it feels like that’s ready to change. His skill-set is first grade level, and the role he would play would be perfectly sculptured to them. Indeed it wouldn’t surprise me if by the end of 2023 he had taken Emre Guler’s spot in the rotation. The only aspect of his game that may hold him back is the passing that the Raiders’ brains trust instilled in all the middle last season.
Those three figure to be the biggest parts of 2023, but there are others that may play a role, and if the lesson of 2019 is anything, it’s that it takes numbers of challenges to find a winner. The good news is there are plenty more pushing for positions. Peter Hola has played first grade for Cowboys before he came to Canberra, and was the raiders player of the year in NSW Cup in 2022. He will likely be with Mariota in pushing for top-grade prop spots. Given Mariota found himself ahead of Hola in the 2022 depth chart, one would expect he’s a step away, but if Sticky goes the 2019 route, we could see Hola in the top line early in 2023.
The Milk’s depth chart for edge defenders is about as deep as a wading pool. One or two injuries and emerging players like Clay Webb will figure large. Webb played 20 games in Cup last year, and proved himself a capable defender willing to put in hard work in attack (nearly all his metres were on hit-ups). In brief forays into higher level footy (i.e in the trials) he looked less acclimatised, but given he was born after me and my wife first met, well, let’s give him a second to develop.
It’s a substantial list of players hoping to get a go. Ricky has always seen competition for spots as a key driver of success, and like 2019 (though also 2021, such it’s not causal) there should be plenty of people working to get a game. Let’s hope it has the same result as the good times.