Return of the competition philosophy

BY DAN

If things go to plan, Danny Levi probably isn’t going to start at dummy-half for the Raiders this season. But Ricky Stuart would love if everyone – including the players competing with him for a spot – think he might.

For a long time now, Coach Stuart has been a proponent of competition as a method for getting the best out of players. It’s been obvious in how he’s worked with colleagues over time to build rosters, including at teams before the Raiders. It’s been clear in how he’s handled relationships with existing players. In the past he’s even stated the dogma explicitly, most notable in relation to the performance of the back five through 2020, and the need for marked improvement in the 2021 season (sigh). It was pervasive across the organisation, as evidence by then assistant Brett White making the same point to the The Green Machine Podcast in relation to a 2021 forward pack that (at the time) seemed stacked (double sigh).

As we’ve said before, it’s a understandable approach.

Philosophers from the Aristotlian-inspired mutualist school, to Adam Smith’s classic economic liberalism, to Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest have promoted competition as a critical part of the pursuit of collective excellence, both within sport and as humans. You can see how it makes sense – anyone who has pushed a little bit harder to chase someone else down (both literally and metaphorically) can attest to its effects. Ask Tesla and Edison. Ask Lincoln’s team of rivals. Ask Roger Dorn and Ricky Vaughn. We push each other. We improve. We can do amazing things with a bit of collective impetus.

So it’s not a new idea. Not for people, and not for the Raiders. And we should remember that when we think about the current experience and a few articles that have come out recently promoting Danny Levi as a potential long-term solution at nine for the Milk.

This was firstly done by Levi himself, when he told Raiders.com.au that his goal for the year was to “get back in, and play NRL, play at the highest level.” This, of course, is to be expected. One does not fly half way around the world to spend your weekends in NSW Cup (as nice as Henson Park might be). Levi wanting and hoping and maybe even anticipating to be in with a chance to play top line footy should surprise no one. That’s not just what one would expect, but one would question the signature if Levi wasn’t aiming for the top.

But what raised our eyebrows was a bit of narrative that emerged around Levi’s enthusiasm this week. It wasn’t just a recognition of desire, but rather one of possibility. Both the Canberra Times and FoxSports suggested Levi could be competing for top-line game time, with Fox journo Tom Sargeant going so far as to suggest that Levi is a chance to become the number one dummy-half and “could become a pivotal figure in this Raiders outfit.” That was beyond wanting. That’s damn near fighting words. Then Sticky doubled down this week, telling the world that Levi had hit the ground running and was a genuine shot.

He has really hit the ground running. He is fit and healthy and he has bought right into the place. Danny is going to get an opportunity in our first trial. What he has done is created a very healthy competition

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Suddenly 16 other teams that had watched Levi leave the NRL and head to the Super League are kicking stones because they’d missed out on a quality starting hooker. Levi will start in a trial – though time will tell if that’s starting as part of a third or first string side. Again, colour us curious.

It’s plausible – heck, it wouldn’t be the first time the Raiders nabbed but someone from England and made them sing. The list is long enough you could almost make a footy team itself. The Englishmen speak for themselves, but the Raiders have also made a habit of bringing people back from overseas for a second stint in the league. Jason Smith. Sia Solioa. Jeff Lima. Matt Orford. It’s been a key part of their success, and doubly so under Stick. So it’s not ridiculous to think the Milk could do it again.

While that may be the case, inserting Levi as a starting nine is a far cry from where we think Levi is at. We’ve always seen Levi as a clear third in the Raiders depth chart of hookers, with a potential to move back to fourth once Adrian Trevilyan is healthy. Levi is a good runner, and gives fine service from 9, but performs neither of those roles as well as the person he would replace. The sense in signing him was insurance – insurance for Zac Woolford’s and Tom Starling’s health and development. Insurance that with Trevilyan on the road to recovery from surgery over the first half of 2023, the Milk may have been one niggle away from starting Matt Frawley again. That suddenly everyone had moved Levi from a bit player to a ‘pivotal’ figure in the Raiders chase was an intriguing jolt to our perceptions.

It reminded me of when Caleb Aekins joined the club in late 2020. The drums immediately began beating for competition at the fullback stop, and that trope of ‘CNK to the centres’ began its familiar beat. Sticky even got in on the action, suggesting it as a possibility to the Telegraph. That made us take notice, though we still assumed the courageous Charnze would be first choice. He was of course, and started the year at fullback. Aekins was so unimpressive as a replacement when Nicoll-Klokstad was injured that he hesitantly ran all the way to England. So any noise about Levi starting should be taken with this history (and that of other players) in mind.

But we could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time a player has used extra minutes in a lesser competition to develop the skills and confidence they needed to succeed at the top level. If Levi succeeds will be first to cheer him on. At the very least Stuart, and the media, are telling us he’s ready.

There is no doubt that Coach Stuart will love this narrative. As with his back five in 2021, the relationship between Charnze and Aekins (and Charnze and Xavier Savage in 2022), Sezer and Williams, and a pile of forwards over the years, Sticky is keen to make sure players feel the pressure of competition. To make sure they turn up day after day with the motivation of working as hard as they can in the knowledge that the next person in line will take their minutes if offered an opportunity. Stuart clearly thinks its a big part of making a successful squad.

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