The Cost of the Savage Injury


A bad day at the footy was made so much worse when Xavier Savage left the ground with suspected broken jaw. This has now been confirmed as such by scans, and Xavier will be out for eight weeks, as confirmed by the club. This means he’ll miss the first six weeks of the season.

It’s an additional sadness after yesterdays unimpressive display by the Milk. The look on Savage’s face (and also the doctor’s breaking him the news) gave the ghost away. It looked bad, and it was, and now the Raiders are going to have to find a solution for the first chunk of the season, now just weeks away.

This is genuinely awful news for the Raiders (yes, that’s why you come to the Sportress for insights like that). Most good teams have a couple of top notch ball players in their spines. Canberra has that in Jack Wighton. But at 9 and 7 the Raiders current roster is meant to support other people to take the game over. Savage was an important point-of-difference in a spine that can often be more honest and complementary than dominant. His skills as a ballplayer in the backline, and his frankly thrilling pace, had the potential to be elite. He was the shredding guitar solo to Fogarty and Woolford’s rhythm section (in this analogy I guess Wighton is the singer, but let’s not dwell on that too much).

Canberra doesn’t just lose the skills, but also the connection. As we’d noted a few times over the off-season, the major edge of the Raiders were bringing into 2023 was a spine that would likely be the same as it ended 2022. It shuffled through 14 different spine combinations last season because of injury and other issues. It took nearly all season to build the cohesion that would lay the foundation of a competent attack. Now, like they did through much of last season, the Milk will be scrambling for more imperfect solutions while critical parts of their spine, and key parts of their attacking output sits on the sidelines.

It’s also obviously bad news for the young man. In addition to presumably drinking all his food for the near future (remember in 2020 Sia Soliola tried to blend KFC, so boring was his daily calorie intake?), Savage has been robbed of a chance to continue his upward trajectory and development as a football player. Instead of seeing if the physical development he’d undergone over the last few months could set him up for success, he’ll need to wait. A man who has to prove he’s capable of matching it physically with the big boys will have to do so with the anxiety a recovery from such a horrible injury can bring. Instead of putting into place the lessons of 2022 his learning has been delayed. It’s not panic stations for his career or anything, but it’s an arrested development neither he nor the raiders wanted at this stage.

Canberra now needs to find an option to cover the space. The options seem to be ‘known’ and imperfect, and hopeful but uncertain. Known is Jordan Rapana being the wily crazy veteran who fills in at a critical spot because there’s no other perfect option. Rapana’s offerings – mostly in the form of being excellent in yardage, relatively functional as the second man on attacking shifts and being a capable defensive organiser – are offset by a tendency towards odd decision-making, errors and ill discipline one would normally associated with an experienced player. Albert Hopoate and James Schiller have backfilled Rapana on the wing before, and have both proven capable at first grade level. So this seems like a feasible, if imperfect option.

Similarly ‘known’ but imperfect would be to move Jack Wighton back to one and bringing in Brad Schneider or Matt Frawley in at six. This will appeal to those people who repeat the “the Raiders have a better record with Frawley at six than Jack” thing like it’s the new “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams”, but I suspect it’ll hold less weight with Stuart. A substantial injury at one spine position is a disaster. Creating cohesive chaos by then changing two different spine positions is the kind of organisational panic more suited to the Australian cricket team touring India.

The other stream of options come from trying younger solutions on the roster. Almost all of the next tier stars have played some fullback. Hopoate was initially pinned as a fullback, and Schiller has shown the mind of creativity that fullbacks require. Harley Smith-Shields may have been another option had plantar fasciitis robbed him of his own opportunities at the start of this season. None of these options was preferred when Savage went down in the match though. Instead Elijah Anderson, who played three minutes of first grade in 2021, and has otherwise been probably itching for another opportunity at the top line, filled in at the back.

My bet is the Raiders go with Rapana, at least until that proves fruitless. Stuart has shown that Rapana is his fail safe when something like this past; asking him to fill in a fullback, centre, and anything else that Canberra might need. Players like Hopoate and Schiller have proven capable of filling in on the wing, and that might be enough for Stuart.

But the length of time that Savage out is an interesting variable. It is right on the edge of being short enough that turning to experience to cover a quick gap makes sense, and long enough that perhaps makes allowing a young player to build into the position more logical. My tendency is to think this is a unique opportunity to get a young player an opportunity, but Sticky seemingly has a mixed view with this. Savage himself was overlooked at fullback early last year in favour of Rapana. That was only a few weeks, But then Schneider was thrown in when a longer gap opened up.

If that path is chosen the three options are intriguing. Elijah Anderson is an intriguing athlete, and a talented footballer and his choice ahead of Hopoate or Schiller in the trial game suggests he’s been training as a fullback. He showed good instincts in his positioning and any concerns about his fitness in filling the role would likely he fixed by more time there. Hopoate also feels like a safe but conservative option, a strong ball runner and safe under the high ball, but I’m not sure he ads much in attack other than strong lines (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Schiller would also be worth considering, a useful mix of skill and power, though to me he sits behind the others in the depth chart.

Stuart’s decision will tell us a lot of where he sees these young players. Will he turn back to a “trusted” veteran or trust that the work done in developing Anderson, Hopoate and Schiller over the last few years has been worth it?

We’ll know when Sticky names the team for trial two. I wish it wasn’t a question we needed answered.

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