The Right Questions


David Fifita probably isn’t coming to Canberra, either this year or next. Elliott Whitehead has spend the last seven years destroying his body for our entertainment and his teammates betterment. Corey Harawira-Naera has never been able to hold down a permanent position. Clay Webb is nominally the future. When we look a step wider in the defensive line Jamal Fogarty is 10 games into his Raiders career and probably as good as he’s going to get. Brad Schneider is off contract at the end of the season and might (insert shrug) be better? Matt Timoko is an obviously a right side centre that wasn’t allowed to be a right centre until too far into last season. Even Jordan Rapana, the long time star winger, arguably one of the best the Raiders have ever had, is playing with house money on a career that shouldn’t be this productive at this age.

Canberra have questions, and while the potential presence of David Fifita had the capacity to answer a lot of them, without him coming it feels like in the medium term the Raiders are stuck between generations. Whitehead and Rapana only have so much left in their joints. Fogarty and Corey Harawira-Naera possibly have unknowns about their ceilings, and longevity beyond their current contracts with the club. Only Timoko, who has long been a favourite in these pages, feels like he’ll be where he is for years to come.

The way forward here isn’t easy. There’s no easy or clean pathway. Go full ‘development’ and start including Webb and Schneider and you risk creating a mess and potentially wasting the Wighton/Tapine/Papalii primes while you try to fix a problem with a solution that’s more gamble than certainty. Clay Webb may be the future (or he may not) but he’s not ready now, and pretending he is may be worse for him than holding him back. But expecting veterans will continue to perform at the same level, age be damned, is as naïve as the opposite approach. Worst case scenario you end up with the same ‘prime-wasting’, just at the other end of the leger.

The short term approach is to dance with who brought you, and that seems it’s the best until it’s clear it won’t work. Whitehead’s 2022 was not his best, but part of me is holding on to the idea that a large part of that rests with the fact he’d prepared his body to play middle last season. The shift back to the edge meant that he was playing in space with a body prepared for collision. Indeed, he improved on the edge as the year wore on, had his best game in a long time in the semi against Melbourne and then looked damn near sprightly in the world cup. Perhaps a focused pre-season will bring his best back, though with the miles on his wheels it feels more hopeful than anything.

The other veteran option, Corey Harawira-Naera has been tried and never stuck with. His defence clearly doesn’t satisfy Coach Stuart because his attack has always felt excellent. I’ve always argued his defence isn’t bad, but rather it doesn’t help those around him enough. He’s never been given much time, or rope, at that position for the Milk. But given he’ll be 28 this season, one wonders if he’ll ever be what Stuart expects.

You could get creative, like my man Mooch (best nickname ever) suggested via email this week. Perhaps Young swings across to the right, Seb Kris steps in a spot, Harley Smith-Shields or Jarrod Croker get their spot back, and we go forward that way. It’s a novel and fascinating idea. During the peak of Vlandoball we had repeatedly suggested Kris as having a potential role in the middle, and you’ll remember he played 15 minutes at right edge before concussion ended his day in the chaotic game against the Warriors at the start of 2021. He would be a mobile edge, and particularly with Smith-Shields outside him, would unlock a pace-and-space style of footy Canberra have been threatening to implement, but never successfully pulled off.

As fun as it is, this idea isn’t without its downsides. Young clearly prefers playing on the left, and the combination he has built with Jack Wighton only started to bear fruit last season. Weakening a strength to strengthen a weakness is also a risky move. Moving him across potentially fixes no problems and creates an entire new one. Kris has only just started to find his feet in first grade, and it seems unfair to keep shifting him as a spot-fill for problems that aren’t his to fix. He’s been preparing as a centre for two years, and asking him to play wing (as he did at the start of 2022) and then second row in 2023, is punishment his body likely isn’t prepared for. It’s one thing to occasionally play help defence on a big man drifting wide, or a big backrower like Fifita or Viliame Kikau. But to constantly be taking down big men would require a body transformation, one that would be unfair to put on Kris this late in the pre-season.

I’m less concerned about the halfback and wing situations. Rapana may have a limited half-life left in the nuclear-powered reactor that keeps his lust for (football) life going, but I’m not convinced that’s ending any time soon. Even if it does, James Schiller, Albert Hopoate and Harley Smith-Shields are all keen to play. At halfback Fogarty is a perfect transition halfback, fitting in with the ‘Wighton/Papalii/Tapine’ generation as Schneider supports the future. Schneider will benefit from his time in first grade last year, and should be given the opportunities that come to fill in this year ahead of anyone else (like Matt Frawley).

But even with those positions slightly more settled than the backrow, there will still be a matter as to how they fit in together. Fogarty is less horizontally agile in defence than Schneider, and needs support. Can Whitehead still provide that over the medium term? Can Harawira-Naera add that string to his bow? How much has Timoko benefited from having a well-known lunatic outside him keeping defenders attention?

The answers are there, but right now it’s not apparent. All Canberra have is a bunch of questions.

Like our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or share this on social media and I’ll give you a lollypop. Don’t hesitate to send us feedback ( like Mooch did and I promise we’ll do our best to respond. Comment below if you want to call us names.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s