Trust and Seb Kris.


Canberra’s performance in the trial match against the Tigers wasn’t the only surprising thing about Sunday. Prior to the game it was announced that instead of the announced and much predicted decision to shift Jordan Rapana to fullback to replace the injured Xavier Savage, Sebastian Kris would make the shift. Rapana instead would stay on this wing, and Harley Smith-Shields would replace Kris at centre.

This was an interesting choice. Rapana has been Stuart’s backline failsafe. A person he trusted like Sam Williams before him, or Elliott Whitehead in the forwards. He’s filled in at centre and fullback whenever Stuart hasn’t been able to find easier solutions. His tendency to make boneheaded decisions has, for a time, been offset by a brilliant ability to overcome himself. But that ability is waning, and with the additional mental and physical toll that comes with the role of fullback perhaps that era of trust is ending.

Smarter people than me saw the naming of Kris coming (shouts to Matt and Nick from the Green Machine Podcast) but it was a surprise to me. Kris has played a similar ‘gap filler’ role for Stuart but never had it been acknowledged that fullback was a likely spot, and he’s only recently established himself as an ‘every week’ first grader. He’s played centre and edge backrower. He played a bit of wing last year, but hardly looked comfortable. Until last year I’d not thought him laterally agile enough to be a top level defender at left centre. I’d never considered him especially quick, or have the necessary motor or ball skills to make fullback his own. He had always struck me as a a solid player that had worked hard to earn the right to play first grade. Evidently Stuart now trusts him to do one of the hardest jobs on the field.

Apparently this has been a time coming. The scuttlebutt is that Kris as been training at fullback as Savage’s backup (again, courtesy of the handsome gents over at the GMP). If that’s the case, then it only makes sense that he would be given that position when Xavier was hurt. This is only made more obvious given the Raiders depth at centre (with Harley Smith-Shields ready to slot in, and Jarrod Croker waiting in the wings) and the paucity of depth at fullback. Kris will bring a lot of the role. He’s a strong runner and a capable connector in attack. He won’t see and a create like an elite fullback, but I doubt he’ll get caught with the ball in the same way that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad would. He’s a robust one-on-one defender so he’ll fill the role at A defender on the goal-line well. But apart from that there’s plenty of questions.

In particular we’ll be keen to observe two things. First, how Kris operates in attack. He’s always been comfortable shifting the ball but I’ve never thought him a creative player, nor a fast one. As a fullback my assumption is that his strongest skill would be as a support player around the ruck, but the physical demands of doing this, and being available to be the secondary creator on shifts and structured play means picking and choosing when to do that. In the trial we didn’t really see Kris around the ruck. I can’t decide if that’s by design or physical necessity.

Secondly, how Kris’ relative lack of speed impacts his ability to fill the role will be interesting. We saw Sunday the Tigers put a speculative long kick to the corner and David Naufaluma almost beat Kris to it. That was despite the Sea Bass having a substantial head start and seemingly being in relative good position to cover the kick. This might impact at moments like this, but also in other moments that test his pace and dexterity.

It’s hard to assess whether it worked out based on the trial match. Kris’ only overt mistakes were in cleaning up a perfectly positioned grubber that Rapana ended up getting in the way of anyway. He seemed relatively comfortable under the high ball and seemed to find himself in good positions for most kicks. He got through yardage effectively, and was comfortable in contact on the goal – as one would expect.

But as with much of the Milk’s performance, the lack of discipline in handling and defence makes it hard to tell how effective other aspects of his game were. He was noticeably not around the ruck when middle popped out the other side of the line, but the Raiders don’t tend to use their one like that, rather having them sit wide to be apart of shifts. It’s also hard to tell how effective he was at the organisational aspect of defence. The only try scored with 13 men on the field was a shift the Raiders defended well structurally that fell apart with poor contact on a critical tackle. Perhaps that suggests he was effective. Perhaps the collapse with twelve men suggests the opposite. We’ll keep watching closely.

It’s hard to not think it’s an imperfect fit. Kris doesn’t bring any of the dynamism that most teams put in their spine positions. He’s solid, and while that may be effective as a stop gap for a game or so, this longer period may really put a handbrake on the Raiders attack right when they need to find a way to unleash it. I think he’ll be solid as a defender, but teams will exploit his relative small range in kick coverage. It could mean Canberra is starting sets 15 metres closer to their own line than they normally would, and that will take its toll over a game, and a series of games.

Beyond the field, a decision like this also reveals a lack of trust in the next generation of Raiders’ backs. Both Albert Hopoate and Elijah Anderson played some fullback across the trial games, but neither were given any major time with the first string side. Both had errors in their games last week (so did the whole side), so one can understand not seeing them as ready for first grade. That doesn’t make it any less maddening that the Raiders only solution is to shift around their starters.

This, of course, may be a whole lot of hot air about nothing. Sometimes I think Ricky Stuart loves smokescreens more than the Murdoch media loves Peter V’Landys. He may have named Kris there for the trial with no intention of playing him there beyond last week, or just wanting to have a look. He did something similar with Corey Horsburgh on the right edge when John Bateman was out at the start of the 2020 season. In that example Horsburgh looked dramatically out of place trying to play on the edge. In this circumstance the Raiders didn’t hold the ball long enough, or compete well enough in defence, to see in any complete or sophisticated way, what Kris is worth as a fullback. One can’t discount that Smith-Shields’ relatively quiet game on the edge will be enough to drag Kris back there, and give Smith-Shields an easier role through the opening weeks, while Rapana shifts to the back (update: Rapa has since said he won’t be playing fullback because he’s too old). If so, that’s a long way around to get where we started. That we don’t know if Stuart would pick his preferred fullback in the last trial before the season says a lot about Sticky’, trials, and the options available.

Regardless of where we land, with just weeks to go before the first game of the season, it’s a big risk with a critical position. Add in the seemingly likely addition of Danny Levi to the first 17, and suddenly Canberra has gone from a team with not much change, to one with a multiple changes through its spine, and elsewhere. Combined with what can best be described as a uninspiring pre-season, and whatever stability and optimism existed feels shaky. Righting that ship will take a lot from a host of different players, but none more than whoever plays at the back. Whoever it is, I hope Sticky trusts them.

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One comment

  1. If Ricky isn’t confident that Rapana has the speed anymore to fill in at fullback why Kris and not Schiller who has the pace? It seems more a decision designed to get HSS onto the field at centre than a serious fill in for Savage?


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