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. Part III on the halfback position is here.
Regardless of what happens in the pursuit of big scenes and recruiting dreams, the Canberra Raiders will enter 2023 looking for a solution to glaring hole: the lock position.
Part of the reason for that is how much the position has changed over the last few years. Through the 80s and 90s locks had been a secondary creator, an extra pair of hands that could tackle the big guys, but offer a bit of connection and creation through the middle third. Players like Brad Clyde, Bobby Linder and Brad Mackay were the ‘bigger’ version, but it was also a option to teams with an extra half in need of a home. Brad Fittler, Wally Lewis, Laurie Daley and later Braith Anasta, all spent time in various sides holding up that position.
But with playmaking put in the hands of the halves, and the expansion of creative hookers like Cam Smith, Mick Ennis and Josh Hodgson, teams tended towards treating that position as less of a ball-player and more of a mobile tackle machine. Dallas Johnson, Shaun Fensom and Allan Tongue were ‘small’ versions of this, while other teams went large and basically treated the position as a third middle. In recent times the Raiders had played Corey Horsburgh, Ryan Sutton, Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine in the position. They are all props by another name.
Then V’Landys threw his toys out of the cot because Hugh Marks took away his binkie, and the position went crazy for a season or so. Suddenly Josh Hodgson, Tyrone Peachy and Connor Watson were the mould. It wasn’t a big half without a home. It wasn’t a creative middle. It was just a little dude that could take advantage of middle defenders so gassed from V’Landys idiotic rules, either with a bit of speed in his heel or with some handy ballwork. For two seasons no one was quite sure what to make of the position, until last season it settled back where it was once upon a time.
For the Raiders it meant that, after a bit of negotiation through the start of the 2022 season, and an injury to Josh Hodgson, Adam Elliott held the fort. It was a perfect solution. He was an athletic big, capable of meeting big men in defence, but also offering a bit of agility and creativity through the middle. Kudos to the Knights for recognising that the green shoots of the beginning of 2022 would be worth a long term investment before Canberra did (or for snaring the boyfriend/girlfriend double before the Milk could).
So now Canberra are searching for the solution and will likely start with the safest. Corey Horsburgh to open proceedings, before Corey Harawira-Naera takes over as a more mobile option through the middle overs. Two Coreys, one lock. This is not quiet the ‘go big’ model that has previously been used. Big Red is more mobile than people realise. A great example is now legendary Seb Kris try (or as you may know it, the Hudson Young no look pass try). It started with Horsburgh getting outside the A defender to create an opportune hole for Young to burn into.
Harawira-Naera is not your everyday lock either. He offers a good mix of agility and creativity (that comes almost exclusively from his devastating ability to offload) that could unlock support players through the middle (hello Xavier Savage). He’s not a link passer like Elliott was, but given how much of that work is now built into the play of Tapine, Papalii and Horsburgh, perhaps the Raiders can manage without. His defensive challenges are less pronounced in the middle too. Coming on for the second rotation means not only capitalising on tired defenders, but also keeping the flexibility of someone that can cover multiple forward (and some back) positions on the bench.
Harawira-Naera would not be unfamiliar with this role either. Indeed he was meant to fill this role for the Milk in their semi against the Eels before fate and injury intervened. The only short-term risk is obviously if Harawira-Naera is needed at right edge (Smell I believe in you, I just hope your body can handle what it’s been put through).
This Corey pairing seems the most likely outcome of all this at the beginning of the season. This is the ‘safest’ position, using established players whose skills now match the demands and the game plan the club has. But it does come with risk. Removing Horsburgh from the second rotation of middles puts pressure on Emre Guler to take a leap we’ve been waiting years for him to take. Or Ata Mariota establishing himself immediately as a first-class impact prop. Or it relies on Canberra’s most talented but least consistent player finding the constancy that’s eluded him during his time at the club. It also assumes that Harawira-Naera’s defensive challenges are less pronounced in the middle.
But as we flagged in our predictions for 2023 is that as the year wears on, there is another option. Trey Mooney’s claim on minutes in the middle (particularly in that rotation through the middle forty minutes of the game) will only become stronger as the year wears on. He offers all the mobility but with more upside. As he told NRL.com recently, last season was about learning the role of an NRL player, this year is about establishing himself. He’s a natural middle, more mobile and with passing skills that will take time time to acclimatise, but I’m confident will eventually succeed in first grade. He spent much of last year on an edge in Cup Footy, but it seems the Raiders (and anyone with eyes) can see that’s not his long term position. This is the future, but is the future now?
Of course, this is further complicated on the off-chance the Milk sign David Fifita. He theoretically wouldn’t join the club until 2024, but when he did it would exacerbate the logjam at 13. He would start at right edge, and Mooney, Harawira-Naera and Whitehead would all be competing for minutes at 13. Props like Horsburgh and Saulo will likely be limited to maintaining their part of the prop rotation. Everyone will be fighting for scraps. Fifita, in that scenario, might even join the club in 2023, and may then be eased into the 17 via the middle rotation. Even then though, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mooney takes more minutes at 13 as time rolls on. There’s simply too much talent and too much possibility there.
It makes for a complex situation with too many imperfect options. As the Milk’s backline learned in 2021, when you have a lot of answers to a question it’s not always a good sign. Indeed, it’s a test of the club; the talent is clear, but have the Raiders created a player and a system capable of capitalising on it?
But if Canberra and Mooney have done the work over the last few years, there’s a good chance of a massive find. If Mooney continues to develop on the same timeline as Hudson Young (and maybe David Fifita) the possibilities are so wonderful I’m knocking on wood so as to not jinx it. In the end the Raiders could replace a more mobile lock who could ball play and defend in the middle with the same thing, with arguably more upside.
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