Building a Star


Hohepa Puru could be a star.

Puru is just 20, his body nowhere near developed. He’s only played a bit of Cup footy, and isn’t forecast to be near the first grade squad this year. Any assumption that whatever he is now is going to progress in some linear and predictable fashion is not only stupid, it’s probably unfair on a person who was a teenager at the start of last season. He isn’t even a member of the Raiders top 30, just another prospect on a trial-and-train deal, hoping to prove himself worthy of being kept around. It’s insane to lump lofty expectations on him. The road to football is success is littered with promise and potential.

But, after a bit of Cup footy last year, and Puru’s performance in the first trial match, it’s so clear that their exists a set of talents and football intelligence that is just waiting for a body to catch up. He’s proven himself a leader (he captained the Panthers Jersey Flegg team and winning man-of-the-match in the grand final), and taken the chances offered to him so far in Cup footy (he cracked a 150 metres on the ground in the final game of last season).

What makes us Hohepa-holics (for whom the only salve is more Puruhol)? It’s a rare combination of what he gives and what the Milk needs. Puru is exactly the kind of middle that is in short supply in Canberra. He’s fast, with wonderfully quick feet in the line. He’s got an impressive work rate, and is comfortable playing as a distributor through the middle. In fact it’s more than *just* comfort. In the trial match we saw him routinely engage the line, and promote the ball to another middle forward hitting a hole (or the halves on the edge). He looked to have established a good connection with people he’d only spent a pre-season with, which speaks to the skill he is operating with.

This role is critical in allowing teams to threaten multiple points of the line at a time. In much the same way that a fullback floating out the back can draw the eyes of a centre on a sweeping movement, a forward that is likely to create can make it harder for middle defenders. It forces decisions about who to cover, and create space prime for exploitation if defences focus on support runners. Combining that threat to create with quick feet can allow a player to get between defenders, creating quick rucks and potentially an offload to say, I dunno, some sort of speedy fullback hanging around behind the ruck. Mixing that with a willingness to take on the line, and suffer the contact that can result from that, makes him a unique talent.

That Puru has this exact set of skills is good news for the Milk. This sort of player has always been a bit of a luxury in the past. Alan Tongue, Adam Elliott and of course Bradley ‘the Goat’ Clyde (though, obviously with different emphasis and success) are the only to provide the whole package. Other players have had bits of pieces of the story. Josh Hodgson had the creativity but struggled as a smaller player among the big middles. Laurie Daley played there but only to find a way to squeeze Mark McLinden and another half (either McFadden or Brett Finch). Corey Horsburgh and Ryan Sutton were props with a bit of facilitating ability playing as a lock. Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii have done similar (though Taps improved passing and the fact Sticky has named him at 13 in both trials might expand the role for him). Trey Mooney could also end up there, or almost anywhere in the pack, depending on how seriously you take his placement on an edge in the trials.

The challenge is that most players that have the size don’t have the agility or the passing. Most that have the agility and the passing don’t have the size or ability to wear the defensive contact. It makes sense; it’s a bit of a unicorn that is both big and brilliant. If these players were easy to find then Isaah Yeo and Cam Murray wouldn’t be so remarkable. This challenge exists for Puru also. In the trial match we saw him fall off tackles as Canterbury’s big props came at him at pace, challenging him to match them for physicality. Hohepa noted this, telling Raiders social media after the game that “the boys are a lot more physical up here” and that the game was “a lot faster” and “tough”.

But Puru is still developing, in his game and his body. He’s not meant to play first grade this year, and that should give him plenty of time to continue to grow, both physically but also in his game. The experience of a year of Cup footy, combined with another year of growth, will hopefully be enough to see him coming into the top 30 in 2024.

After that he might just become a star.

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