For nine weeks last season the Raiders were a rudderless mess. With Josh Hodgson out for the season, Tommy Starling was having such issues managing as an 80 minute hooker that Matt Frawley and Adam Elliott were tried as openers. Next generation hero Adrian Trevilyan wasn’t ready physically to stand up to the rigors of top line, and was only seen for twenty minutes in the entire season. They may not have known it at the time but the Milk needed some help.
The insertion of Zac Woolford on a sunny Sunday afternoon at magic round played a profound role in the turnaround that occurred in Canberra’s season. On the day he set up two tries, including creating the game-sealer with a wonderful dart through a gap behind the ruck before finding Brad Schneider. He generally controlled the ruck with aplomb. The Milk beat a top four side with a starting spine of Zac, Brad Schneider, Matt Frawley, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. And their season was righted.
Up to that point the Raiders had won three games and lost six. From that point on the Raiders won twelve times, and lost just five, three of which were to the eventual grand finalists Penrith and Parramatta (H/T to NRL Boom Rookies). For the nine weeks before Woolford took over the ruck position the Raiders averaged 14 points a game. For the rest of the season they averaged 25 points a game. It obviously wasn’t all Zac. Joe Tapine had been having a very good season to that point, was just starting the process of going absolutely ballistic. Jamal Fogarty was rounds away from coming back, and beginning to build a relationship with Jack and Zac. Adam Elliott, who we had pinned as a lock to start the season, had only just been given the lock position (with a bit of a holiday as starting hooker along the way). So there were contributing factors beyond Woolford. But anyone with eyes could tell the smooth functioning of a rugby league side was heavily influenced by Woolford’s presence.
The young rake brought to the side something which it was missing since Josh Hodgson’s knees stopped cooperating: composure, ruck manipulation, and an ability to deceive markers and ruck defenders. Not with the threat of running so much as an old-school ability to use body positioning, eyes, a step or two, and an accurate pass to keep markers honest. He could create width from the ruck where necessary, and generally do a job that no Canberra hooker had managed outside of Josh Hodgson in the Stuart era.
The lesson there is that while the game has changed, in many ways it hasn’t. While Vlandysball initially did empower hyper-fast runners like Tom Starling by draining the batteries of ruck and A defenders, the roll-back of his idiotic rules have brought back the actual skill in the game. Nines need to be able to manipulate the ruck. They need to be able to make A defenders stop on their heels and think- not plough forward into the man everyone knows is going to get the ball. The skills they need aren’t necessary athletic as they are mental.
Instead of heeding that lesson, Coach Stuart seems likely to head into the 2023 season with Tom Starling, and higher-floor, lower-ceiling Tom Starling. Both Danny Levi and Tom Starling do their best work with their feet. Both are impeccable and hand-working defenders. Neither manipulate the ruck and the next accurate long pass Starling throws will be the first. Through two trials game the Raiders middle seemed to be on top of their opposition and operating smoothly for precisely twenty minutes. It’s no coincidence that period coincided with Zac Woolford playing with some of the starting forwards.
This isn’t a pro-or-anti Levi and Starling thing. It’s a style of player thing. As ABC League writer and NRL Boom Rookies bon vivant Nick Campton put it, Woolford is more Api Koraisau to Starling and Levi’s Damian Cook style play. Starling and Levi are the hammer that comes after the nail of the forwards, able to take advantage as long someone else has already splintered the wood. Woolford can be the nail, creating the space that others can go through. Canberra is going all in on one style, and leaving the one that worked for it at home, as thought the second half of 2022 simply did not happen.
The caveat here is that Coach Stuart evidently sees something in both Levi and Starling that isn’t necessarily evident as yet (or at least isn’t evident to someone who once when lost in an unfamiliar city decided to do the exact opposite of whatever his intuition told him and found his hotel in about five minutes). Stuart may be backing his pack to be dominant; making a creator at nine unnecessary. Stuart has also clearly seen something in Levi that wasn’t evident in previous NRL stints. Maybe his time in the Super League has given Levi the time and confidence to develop that part of his game. Maybe Starling’s time has come, and one poor period in the trial game should be treated as just that.
Either way this decision is a test of Stuart’s footy brain. His instincts to insert Woolford last year were critical in the Raiders success. Perhaps this decision will validate the assessment of one of the great footy minds. Then of course, maybe we’ll be three and six in round 10 and will need someone to offer something more than fast wheels around the ruck. If so, Zac Woolford will be waiting.
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100% agree here Dan. All I can think is that Stuart wants the cows to think that Woolford is out of the mix and then actually plays him.
Hard to imagine that Levi has improved beyond what we’ve seen at previous clubs.He’s certainly got a better pass than Starling and his form in trial 2 I thought was good. But Woolford should be first picked every week. Wonder how many games we lose before Ricky ‘sees the light’.