One of the best things that came out of 2022 was Hudson Young taking the leap.
Hudson went from only establishing himself as a guaranteed starter towards the back end of 2021, to near the Australian squad by the end of 2022. When the season started there were questions about whether backrow was actually his best position, and whether his body type and quick feet (and a right hand imbued with more murderous intent than Anton Tobias’) would be better suited to the rough and tumble of the middle. By the end we were marvelling at his ball-skills and passing on the left edge. It was everything those of us who had thought he had it in him wanted, and more.
Hudson wasn’t the only player to take the leap, though he was the only one to make *that* leap. As we’ve noted a million times in these pages, player development is fits and starts and rarely linear. Players make jumps and the appear to consolidate. They work out a new set of solutions to an ever evolving set of problems. Sometimes it’s enough to make them good enough for the league. Sometimes it makes them good enough to be a regular first grader. A smaller proportion do what Hudson did and become full-blown stars.
One way we can think about this is rather than their being one ‘leap’, there might be three. The first leap – from outside in – the fringe footy career to regular player – think Zac Woolford last year. The second leap is from squad member to starter. I would argue Xavier Savage made that leap last season. The third and final we’ll call the Hudson Young jump, or starter to star. [You could also convince me there’s a god-level jump like Joe Tapine took last year, Josh Hodgson took in 2016, or Josh Papalii in 2019, but it’s hard to know if that’s a leap, or just the natural peak of a career.]
The thing about each of these these ‘leaps’ is that they are necessary for a good footy team. And they’re even more important to Canberra this coming season. Canberra hasn’t added a lot of external value to their roster since last season. The bid for David Fifita appears to be a miss. Danny Levi appears to be a third string hooker (I am too old to giggle at that). Pasami Saulo is an exciting gamble, but he won’t change the side on his own. If Canberra are to improve they are building on what they already have. That occurs through taking advantage of the connection and cohesion that comes from spending more on-field time together. It also comes from players becoming more than we know of them right now. Sometimes all it takes is the opportunity to do something more than before.
But who? Here’s our pitch for someone ready to take a leap at each of the identified levels.
Outside in: Hohepa Puru
A Panthers junior snared on a train and trial with the Milk in the off-season, Hohepa Puru theoretically isn’t even a part of the top 30, and therefore can’t be a part of the squad until later in the season. Not yet 21, he only just played his first season of NSW Cup footy last season (after captaining the Panthers Jersey Flegg team and winning man-of-the-match in the grand final). He didn’t start a game of Cup footy until the last round of the season. He took that chance the put 150 metres on the ground and generally looked like he belonged.
Puru is exactly the kind of middle that is in short supply in Canberra. He’s fast, with wonderfully quick feet in the line. H’s got an impressive work rate, and seems comfortable playing as a distributor through the middle. In short he potentially has many of the skills that walked out the door with Adam Elliott. Getting through the Panthers depth chart is a bit of a challenge at the moment. He now has an opportunity in with the Milk.
Squad to Starter: Trey Mooney
This will surprise no one. For the same reasons that Puru could go from outside the squad to inside, Mooney could go from 15 minutes of first grade last year to a prominent role this year. Mooney is undoubtedly talented; an athletic, mobile middle, he has been touted for the last two years as someone destined for bigger and better things. Last year he touched first grade, and he has already said that being a part of the top line is his aim for this year.
This year Canberra needs him. There’s a hole at 13, and while there are nominal solutions (Corey Horsburgh and Corey Harawira-Naera will play some minutes there, as may Elliott Whitehead), there’s a spot there that Mooney can make his for as long as he wants it. He’s been toiling away in Cup footy the last two years. He’s got the skills. If he’s ready to make the leap, it could solve so many problems for the Milk.
The Hudson Young Leap (Starter to star): Corey Horsburgh
Corey Horsburgh has been such a massive part of our lives since 2019 that it feels weird that entering his fifth season in first grade that we’re still not sure what the ceiling of his potential is. After injury-riddled and otherwise disappointing 2020 and 2021, Horsburgh finally got some consistent football under him in 2022 and looked great. Career highs in basically every metric, and generally started to touch the edges of what he might be capable of.
We’ve already tagged Horse for an Origin birth, that’s how sure we are he’s ready to make this leap. With Tapine red-lining last year, and Papalii on the wrong side of 30, there’s a sustainability risk in relying on them for the bulk of Canberra’s prop production. At worst, Horsburgh going from good to great could provide a bit of space for Papa and Taps to be somewhat human and the Raiders not suffer. At best, it could turn the Milk’s prop rotation into Cerberus-style monster terrifying the league.
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The big problem with Horsburgh is that they don’t seem to know how they want to use him.
Some days they have him off a short run up then looking to turn and offload when he gets to the defensive line. Other days the have him charging onto it an trying to punch through the line. It felt like they would change this approach every 2 or 3 weeks never settling into one approach or the other.
It will be interesting to see if they continue to have him flip flop between the two this year. I don’t think we see the best of him until give him the same role on a week in week out.
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