The Canberra Raiders’ challenging start to 2023 hit another speed bump with the news that Jordan Rapana is due a three-to-four week break on the sidelines for a tackle he made against the Cowboys.
This comes at such an inopportune time for the Green Machine. Josh Papalii is likely out for this week, and there’s already chaos in the backline caused by the injury to Xavier Savage. Seb Kris is just finding his feet at fullback, and Harley Smith-Shields just played his tenth top line game of footy. The last thing either of them needed was for the most experienced player in the back five to make such a rookie error. Now instead of an experienced and talented player, the Raiders are forced to the depth chart at a time when they really need all hands on deck.
It’s also further evidence of a troubling trend with Rapana. He was always an impetuous and tempestuous footballer, prone to trying the thing that had popped into his head just because it was there. It means taking risks that sometimes don’t come off. Increasingly this is putting his position on the field at risk. We saw it in the All-Star game last year, and again in the trial match a fortnight ago. Indeed the trajectory of this tendency is exactly the problem here. Normally a tackle like this would be worth a fine (see for example Kyle Feldt citation for a similar tackle). But Rapana’s recent history meant more weeks were allotted than would normally be the case.
It’s hard not to think this is about a body no longer able to match the demands of a brain moving at a million miles an hour (or not at all, you be the judge). Rapana has said he’s getting old and his body isn’t capable of what it once was (such as recently when he said he was no longer up to playing fullback). It’s not a stretch to think this escalating caseload is a symptom of a body not as quick as getting into the right position to make plays as it once was.
It leaves the Raiders scouring the depth chart even further in search of a solution. The most likely outcome from my perspective is Albert Hopoate’s elevation. His strengths are exactly what Canberra needs at the moment. Good yardage work, relatively safe under the high ball. Given the likely impact of the Townsville heat and effort on the middle, the back five is going to need to get through plenty of work in order to triumph at Redcliffe. Hopoate has proven his ability to do this dirty work in first grade (averaging 133m on the ground through seven games last season). Placed on the outside of either Smith-Shields or Timoko will create an inexperienced defensive grouping, but there’s no solution available that doesn’t create similar problems.
James Schiller is the other obvious solution. He looked active in the NSW Cup game against the Eels on the weekend, and would also be capable when it comes to yardage – though not as effective as Hopoate in my view (118m a game through 8 appearances last year). He offers a bit more pace and more creativity (and grubbers down the sideline that he recovers just in time to beat Melbourne James Schiller you fucking legend) and similar defensive challenges. If he’s named it wouldn’t surprise me.
A more cavalier option is the movement of Seb Kris to centre, and the elevation of Elijah Anderson from NSW Cup footy to the top line. Anderson was impressive in the Cup game on the weekend and scored a well worked try as part of a leftward shift. He looked strong carrying the ball, and handled most of what was sent his way. He’s a more natural fullback than Kris in my view, has plenty of pace and better kick positioning. It would allow Harley Smith-Shields a simpler role at wing (though not his preferred), and re-establish a connection on the left-edge between Kris, Hudson Young and Jack Wighton that looked a beat behind on the weekend.
Regardless of football arguments, this is unlikely as Stuart would have to back down from his stubborn post match insistence that Kris would be the fullback until Savage was back. I understand him wanting to show faith in Kris, but surely as circumstances change, that position must become more malleable. However much we may want that to be the case, the next time Stuart backs down from a publicly held position will be the first, so I think we can safely assume Kris will be back at one in Tuesday’s team list.
The other option one could consider is the return of Jarrod Croker. Given Stuart’s hesitancy to put him in the team last season until round 10, I’d be surprised if Croker came up here (and shifted Harley to wing). But man, it would be a little bit exciting wouldn’t it? He didn’t stand out physically in Cup footy on the weekend, but if chosen I’d wish him nothing but luck.
But for Rapana and the Raiders more generally, it’s just another problem to overcome, and unfortunately Canberra is stacked with them at the moment.
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