Last season when the Raiders’ season was in a hole so deep that Jame Gumb was about to spray them with a hose, Joe Tapine got them out.
The people’s team had two wins from nine games, almost halfway through a season, and the conversation was ‘spoonbowl’ not ‘Matt Timoko is Cameron Munster’s dad and they live at AAMI Park’. You were there, you know how things felt after the Raiders coughed up a lead to the hapless Warriors (who had just conceded 70 points to the Storm). If 2021 was the worst year in many to be a fan of the Green Machine, that moment felt as though it had put on the glasses/moustache combo and snuck past security into 2022.
At this point most teams just roll in the muck. The stories start leaking. About players from coaches. About coaches from players. Fingers get pointed. To turn that mess around takes a degree of (potentially undeserved) confidence in your systems, in the people around you, and in the ability of your leaders to chart a path out of that mess.
So when Canberra most needed it, Joe Tapine dug them out of the mud. Over the next seven games he averaged 201 metres on the ground, 3 tackle breaks, and chucked in a few stray line-break assists. He even added a try-assist against the Knights when operating as essentially the left-side five-eighth he floated a cut-out ball to Nic Cotric with enough space for the winger to implement his patented hit-and-spin for the try. We’ve often said metres are often an overrated measure of success, but in this period (and for the rest of the season), Tapine’s numbers were matched with an eye-test that revealed a criticality, and a centrality, to all things the Milk could do well.
He ran with power. He ran with agility. He created for others with his feet, and with his offload. He did it taking the hardest carries with the most bodies trying to put him down. When things were at their worst, he put the Raiders on his back. They won five of their next seven, and the season, and Tapine, continued from there on a broadly upwards trajectory. It ended up a career year, and all became well in Canberra. There was finals footy, and what had the potential to end careers and even an ‘era’, became something to build on.
One would assume it’s near impossible for Tapine to build on that magical performance. There’s little else he could do on the field, save maybe to pick up the kicking tee this summer. What’s more he’s already closing in on the dreaded three-zero, that age at which middles tend to peak and drop off. It can’t get better. But can this be the plateau he sits on?
When Tapine signed his extension at the end of last season, we remarked about how pleased we were to hear him talk of his expectations going forward. As he told us then
It’s all about being consistent, and backing it up next year, and the year after that and the year after that…I’m looking forward to the challenge.Here
More recently he doubled down on those statements in discussion with The Canberra Times
Staying consistent, keep doing what I did last year and even working a bit harder. You can’t really stay the same in this game. You’ve got to get better and that’s the goal this year.”Here
It’s a good sign he recognises the challenge facing him, and recognising the need to work even harder. The secret to Tapine’s success in 2022 was his willingness to take on more responsibility, both on the field and off it. For a player of his talent, his inability to play long stints, (or Stuart’s unwillingness to let him) had always held him back. At critical points, fitness and conditioning had let him down (at least in the eyes of Sticky). Instead last season he turned that around, taking more minutes, and a bigger role when he was on the field, earning the unconditional trust of Stuart along the way.
Last season his fitness was there to see. He rarely looked tired, despite a massive jump in playing time, and a bigger role in the offence. He played longer and longer stints as the season went on. Instead of playing 40-45 minutes a game, Tapine played more than 55 minutes 10 times. In big games he was trusted even more, such as when he cracked 66 minutes as the Raiders had to go the full 80 to beat the Storm in the semi-final, or 68 minutes in the wind and rain at Wollongong when Canberra were again trying to hold to their season. He was there so often in 2022, hard carry after hard carry, multiples on a set, and always the fail safe when things weren’t moving how they should.
There will be times he’ll be needed to play such big minutes again, particularly with the Raiders losing some critical middle depth over the last twelve months. Making that even more difficult is the World Cup shortened pre-season. That he recognises the physical challenge is half the battle (the other half comes down to the work of conditioning coach Josh Strahorn). If he’s going to perform at anything close to last year’s level, big minutes are likely a necessity again.
But more than just minutes it was leadership that Tapine used to drag Canberra out of the muck. In a situation where many have responsibility, it’s easy for that diffusion to bring out the worst, or least active, in people. We saw it the year before when as the leadership structure in the side fell apart, there was a vacuum. The team still wanted to win, but there was no one to turn it around and point them in the right direction. Faced with the same situation in 2022, Tapine knew to take action. He carved himself a bigger role within the side, taking more carries, more responsibility for making sure the Raiders got up the other end. It was perfect.
In his discussion with the Canberra Times, Taps pointed to the importance of being trusted with the leadership of the Maori All-Star side as a big part of building his confidence. Perhaps it was. But Tapine always had that Ricky Ponting vibe of a person empowered, not burdened, by leadership. It’s another lever Coach Stuart should pull this season. With current captains Elliott Whitehead and Jarrod Croker no longer guaranteed to play the full 80 any particular week, and the other option, Jack Wighton, is the kind of guy who might have to be reminded he’s in charge, Tapine’s leadership is central to the Raiders’ success. It’s hardly a revelatory idea, but there would be an obvious benefit for him to be given the captain’s arm band this season alongside Whitehead.
After all, if Tapine is going to be required to single-handedly restart the season again, we may as well make his importance official.
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