Team-sheet takeaways


The Raiders named their squad for the first trial game, and even for a trial game it’s interesting.

It’s a decidedly second string squad. Obviously there’s none of the players playing in this weekend ‘s All-Stars game. But there’s also a heap of noticeably absentees that would normally be in the top line team. That’s to be expected – it’s a goddamn trial and it’s still early February. We are still the best part of a month away from the first games. It’s likely we’ll get a better idea of what the first string squad will look like when the team for the second trial is named. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to pore over in this team list.

Let’s start with the incision of Captain Jarrod Croker. We should take this with cautious optimism. This isn’t an indication that mini Toots is about to walk into the first grade squad on a triumphant return to the pathway to 300 games. But it is proof that this is possible. Croker being available, and getting through minutes each week, is a minimum requirement for a potential comeback. Stuart needed eight rounds of NSW Cup as proof that Croker could get through a top line game, and then he didn’t. If Stuart is going to be more conservative this year (and given the depth at centre it’d be hard to expect anything less), every game that Croker can add to his ledger is critical.

It’s also worth noting the inclusion of first grade stalwarts like Xavier Savage, Corey Horsburgh, and to a lesser extent, Emre Guler. The first two are walk-up starters in first grade, and the second would expect to be named in the round one 17, so what are they doing here? For Savage I think it’s recognition by Coach Stuart that minutes on the field are more valuable to nurturing his mercurial talent than rest. Having said that, it would take a brave punter to think he’ll play anything more than a half of footy.

Horsburgh is similar, though I think also a reflection of how he might start 2023. Horsburgh has – for the most part – come off the bench for the Raiders in the past. I think there’s a significant chance his role this season is as the starting 13, and this is an opportunity to grow some familiarity with what it might be like to play that role. Like Savage I don’t think he’ll be on the field that long. Guler is more of a curious choice. It’s hard to say he’s as ensconced in first grade as Horsburgh or Xavier, and one can’t help but notice he’s playing alongside Ata Mariota. I’m curious as to whether they’re competing for a spot, or expect to play as a rotation partnership (like Guler and Horsbugh once did).

Another interesting decision is Trey Mooney named at right-edge backrower. Mooney has played plenty of minutes there in cup footy over recent years, but it always seemed like more of an attempt to diversify his skill base and maintain his mobility to me. Recruitment Manager Joel Carbone previously told Beyond the Limelight that the club sees him more as a mobile middle than an edge player. Many (including these pages) had expected Mooney to be taking minutes at 13 by the end of the year, so it’s noteworthy to see him on the edge.

At first glance there are two explanations. The first is that the club recognises they need to prepare for a post-Whitehead existence, and think Mooney needs to be a part of that depth chart. That may only be on a “break in case of emergency” situation, or it may be as ‘next’ if it becomes clear either Smelly and Corey Harawira-Naera aren’t meeting Sticky’s standards. In the past when I’ve seen him play there, the agility required defensively has been a challenge for Mooney and I’ll be keen to see if it’s still the case.

The other is that Mooney is it’s a two-way bet for the Milk. Mooney will start at 12 and shift to 13 when Horsburgh leaves the field. This allows them to build that emergency depth but also put a limit on what Mooney might offer this season. If that switch occurs it won’t be for long – there’s many a middle waiting to get on the field in this game. These include newcomer Pasami Saulo, NSW Cup player of the year Peter Hola, as well as new prospect Hohepa Puru. The second and third rotation through this trial will be worth watching.

The final inclusion worth noting is Danny Levi at starter, and Zac Woolford as the second rotation. I’m not ready to say this is confirmation of a change in the depth chart at 9 (and evidence I was wrong about Levi being 3rd on the hooker depth chart), but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. Coach Stuart has been praising Levi more than your humble correspondent praised the local bakery for having sausage rolls when he woke up with a sneaky hangover on Sunday morning. Only time will tell if it’s a permanent situation, or like Caleb Aekins and other marginal recruits before him, more of a reflection of Stuart’s desire to spur development in other players.

It’s just a trial, and not even one involving (most of) the first string players. It might not even happen if the league can’t get it’s business in order. But if it happens, there’s plenty to look out for.

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