Surprising Decisions


The announced squad for Sunday’s trial match against the Tigers, Sticky smokescreen aside, is likely close enough to the starting side for round one. In announcing this side, Stuart has announced his solution for many of the questions we’ve posited this offseason. And it makes for interesting, and revealing reading.

For starters we get to see Sticky has decided to go with Jordan Rapana as a replacement for the injured Savage. We forecasted that as a likelihood; despite Rapana’s tendency to make some hot-blooded decisions, he remains Stuart’s most trusted back. He’ll do a solid enough job, with strong yardage work and enthusiastic goal line defence. And then he’ll decide to not catch a bomb or something.

One might consider this a missed opportunity for the development of one of the host of young backs. I have to admit I am sympathetic to this view. The eight week that Savage will be out is enough time for someone who hasn’t played the role in a while to get used to it, and perhaps show something that hasn’t been offered elsewhere. In addition, the physical demands the shift may take on Rapana and hamper him at the back end of the season, or, god forbid, hasten the end of his career. I do not envy Stuart. Choosing between one imperfect and another unknown, Stuart is evidently choosing the problem he can map.

But it has meant that Harley Smith-Shields has been named in Rapana’s wing spot. The fact that he is weeks from a plantar fasciitis diagnosis does raise an eyebrow. That’s not an injury that you want to rush, particularly when you’ve spent all this time watching the last two years. But it is good to see him in the first grade squad. He certainly has the talent to make a dent while Savage is out, and it may well be the solution Stuart chose for Savage was in fact influenced by the easiest way to get Smith-Shields into the squad.

Another answer that Stuart has put forward is that Danny Levi is the evidently starting hooker. If you read these pages you’ll no doubt know I’m surprised by that. However if you’re a regular reader you won’t be surprised by me being wrong either. We’re nothing if not predictable at the Sportress. I had hoped that Zac Woolford and Tom Starling would have showed enough improvement on last year’s performance to convince to coaches to stick with them. If there was a criticism of Levi’s admittedly heartening performance on the weekend it was that the team got its mojo when Woolford came on. That could be a reflection on Levi’s service, but it’s also likely driven by a lack of familiarity of the side with him. We’ve made a big deal of how the continuity of Raiders spine could be a big part of it’s success in 2023. It seems Coach Stuart sees Levi’s talent as a greater benefit from that.

Levi had several good moments on the weekend, including a good read of an opportunity down a weak-side that Jarrod Croker couldn’t capitalise on, and a terrific in-and-away that created the space that Schneider turned into Elijah Anderson’s second half try. He’s a tackling machine – on the weekend he was so eager to get involved he was sometimes two or three steps ahead of the other ABC defenders. Evidently that’s convinced Sticky to roll with him for the time being. I presume that means Starling retains his bench spot going forward. He’s named at 18 in this squad but if you think the Raiders bench will look like the 14-17 is listed, then you are unique and beautiful and I wish you nothing but joy.

Another noteworthy outcome in terms of depth charts is the decision to play Joe Tapine at 13. Tapine played there for Madge Maguire in international football, and now that Vlandoball was quietly walked back in 2022, perhaps playing a mobile big is a feasible way to manage the 13 position. After all, Joey Taps can pretty much do anything.

It’s an intriguing decision because in addition to a roster position, it also provides an indication of how Stuart thinks he can win this year. Tapine’s versatility in style and new-found conditioning allows Stuart to choose his method of attack through the middle third. He can play Tapine as a prop with a mobile thirteen and try to win with mobility. Or, as he’s done here, he can maintain a ‘big’ middle, with Tapine adding mobility to the line-up. It’s not surprising, outside of Adam Elliott and Josh Hodgson (in peak Vlandoball), Stuart has continuously shown a desire to win ‘big’ – both Corey Horsburgh and Ryan Sutton played plenty of time there. It seems when given the choice, or perhaps the lack of a ‘perfect’ solution like Elliott, Stuart returns to form.

It’s also worth noting that this is only for the starting rotation. Harawira-Naera will like come on as 13, and given his longer shifts, this may make Taps an out-and-out prop. Perhaps then it’s less about not playing with pace, and more about saving it for the middle half of the game.

A side note to this was the naming of Emre Guler at starting prop. Defensively he was typically frustrating in the trial, and it’s weird to me that he’s preferred over a host of other middles. Again, me, being wrong, a bottle of red and some seductive eyes. Perhaps he is taking the Dunamis Lui memorial “opener” role; go out and kick ass and take names and not worry about whether you get tired. He’s certainly big enough to do it, and devastating when he wants to be. I’m curious if this is the position Stuart sees for Guler all year, or more recognition that he needs the power and agility of Horsburgh as the leader of the bench mob.

The ‘other’ bench forward is probably the only question that is yet to be resolved. Before the year we noted that it would likely be Tom Starling, Corey Harawira-Naera, one of Corey Horsburgh or Emre Guler and [insert other] on the bench. Last weekend Ata Mariota was the most impressive of the young forwards, and Pasami Saulo didn’t disappoint (though, in the circumstances, that was just because he tackled a lot). Trey Mooney was playing on an edge and not looking entirely comfortable. All three have been named on an extended bench that will presumably come on for the second half with Matt Frawley and Brad Schneider. Which one gets in the starting 17 on game day round one will probably be determined by performances this week (or Coach Stuart deciding to do that thing where he carries a back).

There is, of course, the greater than zero chance that this all changes in the next few weeks. Stuart has pulled weird smokescreens before (like Horsburgh playing as an edge to start 2020). We can only assess what Sticky has put in front of us. If that changes again, it may be because it was always designed to, or because Stuart changed his mind. In the meantime all we can do is take the list at face value.

For now, Stuart has given us a good insight into his thinking for the opening stanza of the season. It’s only a matter of time before we find out if these answers are the right ones.

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