Jack Wighton’s performance isn’t really measurable.
It’s a fascinating part of the Jack experience. For someone who plays representative footy every year, a man who’s generally considered one of the best at his position in the league, he doesn’t really stand out when you look at countable stats.
Pick your indicator. If you looked at the major ones and had never watched Wighton play, you would assume he was on his way out of the league. He was 16th among try assists and total try involvements for five-eighths, behind such esteemed and part-time players as Sean O’Sullivan and Talatau ‘the Hammer’ Amone. He was 11th in line-break assists. Even in areas that would measure he running impact he doesn’t fare well. Something like line-breaks, which I would assume he’d be one of the best, he is down the bottom of the list, behind Billy Walters, Tex Hoy and 16 other players. Defensively he leads the league in one-on-one tackles for five-eighths, but he also had the fourth most try and line-break causes, the sixth most missed tackles and a tackle efficiency percentage that puts him out of the top 20 at his position. According to that statistic, Matt Frawley is a better defender than Jack, which anyone with eyes can tell if at best a half-truth (I kid I kid).
So how is it that Jack exists in our hearts and minds as a good footy player, when the numbers that we have tell us the exact opposite? It’s not that Jack isn’t a creator. Watch this beautiful connection with Matt Timoko late last season. He straightens to create the gap for Timoko to run into, slides to engage Timoko’s man, and pops a perfect ball. It’s champagne rugby league.
An important starting point is to acknowledge that public rugby league statistics are more performative than descriptive. They do little to tell us who is good and who isn’t. The tendency to use aggregation as a base rule for statistics would inherently lead to knowing who did things the most, rather than who did it best. For example a player taking 22 runs for 160 metres might be considered to have had a better day than a player taking 12 runs for 140 metres. But given the limited number of possessions in a set, and in a game, wasting 22 of them on some Aaron-Woodsian 7 metres a pop isn’t ideal. There’s a whole heap of other considerations that might make us think the game was good (perhaps 6 of the 22 runs were quick runs were simple tip-ons to another forward), and it just leads us back at the original position of the stats being not entirely useful as an indicator of success.
In Jack’s circumstance layers it can leave him out of those stats that tend to excite people in halves. Try assists (depending on if you believe Fox or NRL) is generally measured as a last touch thing, and that can over-represent players who are responsible for attacking kicks or those who play in teams that emphasise attack over defence, or have a more risky playing style. Luke Brooks has 12 try assists and his team 20 losses in 2022. Jack had 10 and and 10. Which season was better? That’s not to say these numbers are useless. But they do require a consideration of the context.
A secondary consideration is less arithmetic and more structural. Some teams gear all their actions around key playmakers in the spine. Everything occurs off structured shifts, with either the half, or the fullback, a key decision maker that throws the deciding pass on attacking movements. A great example are the Eels, who scored a heap of tries last year off the feat of Mitch Moses, but also using Moses, Dylan Brown and Clint Gutherson as key decision makers. Each of these players had more try assists than Jack both in aggregate (28, 19 and 19 respectively compared to Jack’s 10) and as a proportion of the total points the team scored.
For the entirety of Wighton’s time at six Canberra have utilised a far more ‘spread’ and ad-hoc attack than other teams. Rather than a structured and set plays, they’ve instead succeeded by creating points as needed, trusting talented players across the park to create points by simply being better than the person opposite. Wighton has spent years with Elliott Whitehead, Jarrod Croker and Hudson Young playing outside him, each a capable ball-players in their own right. We’ve noted in many occasions Wighton’s willingness to let them cook, shifting the ball wide to get them ball in space rather than head at the line to ball-play himself. You can argue about the wisdom of all this, but the key effect is a lower number of try assists, and a lower percentage of those try assists coming from the spine.
You can see this demonstrated below. Canberra is clearly in the bottom quartile across the competition for proportion of tries being credited with try assists. Then of those try assists, Canberra has far and away the lowest percentage coming from their spine – the only team who’s spine creates less than half their points.
So while Jack led the team in try assists and total try involvements, it was still by a far less amount than was normal for a half. While he touched the ball more than any other Raider that wasn’t a rake, he happily let others create outside him. While he engaged the line 153 times, more than double the next most of his colleagues (Jamal Fogarty), it wasn’t enough to make up the statistical gap on other teams.
The point remains that the Raiders attack over the last few years has been less than ideal, and that some of this gap would disappear if Wighton was part of an offence that scored points more easily. Our hopes remain that Canberra will at some point develop a much more structured attack over the next few years, allowing players like Jack opportunities to pile up the countables like other sides do.
There’s also a need for Jack to take a bigger role as part of this hypothetical more structured attack. Once upon a time we were happy for Jack to play a smaller role in the attack. His shift from the back to the front line was one that should have been given time to adjust, to diffuse responsibility with complementary payers like Croker and Whitehead. He’s a better footballer (I think?) than he was in 2019, and with greater power would theoretically come greater responsibility.
But part of that will never change. What makes Jack great is not necessarily something that will ever be captured in the statistics (at least the ones we see publicly). It’s a run that ends with a tackle but results in a try because defenders had to abandon their tasks to deal with job number one. It’s a kick chase that stops a fullback at his own 10, allowing the Raiders to start the next set at their own 40, and ends with the Milk scoring on the back of Fogarty grubber or a Jack trusting Hudson Young to make the right decision with an overlap.
None of them mean that Jack will ever be at the top of the statistical lists. But if you watch Wighton play you’ll know he’s legit. He’s just hard to measure.
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