There weren’t any surprises in Canberra’s team list for round two. Rapana out, Hopoate in was the only change. The bench mob outperformed expectations and kept their spots. And both Danny Levi and Tom Starling kept their positions in a recognition that it’s hard to assess their impact given the lack of ball the Milk had. But one name that surprises in how unsurprising it is, is the presence of Pasami Saulo.
You might remember Saulo as one of the few off-season acquisitions the Milk made before the 2023 NRL season. At the time we joked that you’d be forgiven for asking who Saulo was. On the weekend we got a hint at who he might be: the hardest working man in rugby league.
When Pasami signed with the Raiders he was perhaps best known for an injury that you absolutely shouldn’t google. The courage and effort it must have required to drag himself not only back to footy, but to first grade after that should’ve given us a hint. This is a man for whom giving up isn’t an option. Our initial view of him was that he had a pretty good motor, and that with more opportunity he might be able to prove a valuable addition to the bench mob. In limited opportunities he’d proven that he was the kind of forward that could eat up the toughest battles, providing space and opportunity for the more offensively talented middles to do the fun stuff of running over and through people.
What we’ve seen so far validates that hunch and shows how Saulo is obviously willing to do the dirty work. In both the trial matches, and last weekend’s loss to the Cowboys, Canberra barely had the ball while Saulo was on the field. Not to be perturbed Saulo set about impacting the way in the only way he could – by tackling every motherfucker in sight.
In round one the output was phenomenal. 33 tackles in 33 minutes of footy. According to your favourite analytics nerd’s favourite analytics nerd, the Rugby League Eye Test, he had a tackle rate of over 50 per cent, and the second most by any player last round. That means that while the Cowboys peppered the Canberra line throughout the first half Saulo was involved in every second tackle. When you consider that he did this while playing in the world’s worst sauna it’s even more impressive. Whatever you think of his ‘upside’, it’s clear that there’s a job for him at the Raiders, and he’s ready and willing to pick a shovel and get to digging.
It was pleasing to see him grind in defence but he also proved willing to roll his sleeves up in attack too. He took the opening run of the game, slamming into the big North Queensland middles with the happiness of your humble Raiders’ blogger diving into a box of chicken crimpy shapes (underrated). His willingness to do the extra labour was obvious here too. Again, the Rugby League Eye Test’s numbers are instructive. They show that his involvement rate (tackles, runs, and decoys/supports over play-the-balls) was over thirty percent. That means he was involved in every third play while he was on the field. Either tackling, running, or supporting someone else. This was third highest across the competition.
Canberra have used players like this before. Dunamis Lui, Sia Soliola, and other middles have been used to essentially do the hardest toil through the opening stanzas of games in order to free up the effort levels of more known or potentially talented footballers. It’s a role that shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s value in allowing players like Papalii and Tapine to focus on what makes them elite. If Saulo can prove himself a capable partner to Tapine in opening rotations it may allow the Milk to mix and match their bench rotations, bringing Papalii off the bench with the also impressive Ata Mariota in a bit of thunder and thunder. It’s a good position to be in.
We’ve seen a few outings and noted the work-rate but we don’t know if this was born from the chaos in Townsville rather than something Saulo can maintain this in the longer-term. We don’t even know if he’ll still be in the 17 when Papalii returns. But this may also not be all that Saulo is. He’s still young and he’s only just establishing himself as an every week footballer. Having a willingness to give all your effort doesn’t mean you can’t be more. Ruben Cotter, who played opposite Saulo last weekend, is an example of a player that has a high motor but is elite at other things too. Saulo is on the way to demonstrating that he’s got one skill-set that translates to top line footy. He may have more; only time will tell.
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Never ever underrated chicken crimpys