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. Part IV on the lock position is here.
Despite an improved year for the team, Tommy Starling’s 2022 wasn’t the happiest one. And now with a depth chart of four players competing for two first 17 spots, and with Starling hitting free agency on 1 November, 2023 becomes a massive year for the young rake.
The argument that Starling had an unimpressive 2022 is a curious one. The statistics suggest otherwise. He had career highs in try assists, running metres, average running metres, tackles, and even just out-and-out possessions of the ball. The contention instead reflects an expectation (or perhaps a hope) that Starling would be prepared for more expanded role as Josh Hodgson transitioned out of the top line. But instead 2022 presented the same model that had thrived in peak Vlandoball, only now those massive gaps around the ruck and gassed A defenders were no longer present. The unevolved skill set that had allowed Starling to succeed previously was now insufficient for the style of footy needed in 2022.
This was reflected in the Raiders’ performance, and Starling’s performance. As we noted in June.
Starling was playing 65.7 minutes a game as Canberra stumbled to a 3-6 start before Woolford’s arrival. Since the arrival of another option he’s only playing 38.3 minutes a game and the Raiders have won four games and only lost twice. With Woolford on the field, they’ve scored 108 points in six games, and only 34 with just Starling on the field (at about 2.5 times more points per minute with Woolford on the field instead of Starling).
Instead of becoming an ‘every down back’, Starling remained part of the bench mob, limited both by his size, but also his inability to do more than take advantage of the good work of the Raiders’ forwards.
It was stark in as early as the first game with Zac Woolford at the helm in round 10. The Raiders scored 30 points for the first time all season, with Woolford putting on two tries, as many as Starling had created in the previous nine rounds. Woolford is a more traditional nine. Shifting markers with body positioning and deception, finding big men little gaps to work into. Providing wide and quick service to halves. Starling found a role providing the same pacing shift for Woolford as he had for Hodgson. Instead of becoming the lead nine, he remained first-change, coming on when rucks were tired to target big men with his pace.
It was stasis, rather than evolution. The same offering of a young player that many had assumed would simply continue an exorable rise to the next great Raiders dummy-half. Instead we got more of the same. There was no issue with that – Starling is an elite runner and a great defender on a pound-for-pound basis. But the game was asking for more from the nine, and throughout 2022 Starling was unable to offer it.
It’s hard to know how matters beyond his control were contributing factors to that. His ongoing legal issues hung over his head all season (and don’t look likely to be solved before the 2023 season). Coach Stuart recently spoke to this, seeming to suggest that it had contributed to a difficult environment for Starling:
Tom’s had to cop a lot of adversity but we know the truth. That’s why the club has supported Tom. He’s a good person and a family man. He’s a mentally tough kid, but it’s been a drag for Tom and it’s gone on for a number of years to get to the truth, which is disappointing.Here
It’s also not hard to see that last year Starling struggled in a surprise role – that of primary rake – and succeeded at the one he had prepared for. For the previous two years the tension around roles in the ruck had felt palpable, and a truce had been forged by Hodgson’s inevitable departure. Both Starling and the Englishman had prepared for similar but distinct roles within the side. It’s not a stretch to think that Starling’s limited performance at nine was built through an off-season preparing for a specific role, only to see that change dramatically six minutes into the season.
This would have only been compounded by the change of Elliott Whitehead’s role, which was to ball play through the middle. Starling would have envisaged not having to play a role connecting the middle to the edges (with Hodgson style long passing) as that was to be Whitehead’s job. Only that ceased being the captain’s role weeks into the season. While one might prefer Starling to simply have those skills anyway, he’d spent pretty much his entire first grade career being one kind of player, and suddenly needed to be another.
Now with a full off-season to prepare and expand his game, perhaps Starling is ready to show his promise. Coach Stuart certainly thinks so, suggesting recently that 2023 would be a breakout year for Starling. Perhaps the absence of Hodgson, and the sense of opportunity that is pervasive in the nine position may be all the permission Starling needs to expand his game.
Starling might need to do that for his own purposes, but Canberra has its own interest in working out whether Starling is more than just a chance-of-pace rake. The presence of four hookers on the roster, all of whom will enter the free-agent market as of 1 November mean that there’s going to be a battle for roles, minutes and clarity this season. With Starling’s 2024 deal an option, with Trevilyan potentially off-contract after 2023 and Zac Woolford entering free-agency from 1 November this year, there’s a need for greater clarity about what the potential, and reality of each of these parts.
While the 1-2 punch of Woolford and Starling will likely continue to exist, given their investment in Tom, the Raiders would no doubt love to see Starling expand his game. There’s real decisions Stuart, Furner and Carbone will need to make about which of these players are sticking around in the longer term, and while it seems like they have ages to work it out, there’s a projection that will be required after this season in order to forge the right path.
And whether Tom Starling can become more than an elite runner will be a big part of that.
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