Someone needs to check if there’s an upside-down horseshoe at Raiders HQ because they just got more bad news: Ata Mariota broke his hand at Redcliffe and will miss the next four to six weeks of footy, as first reported by David Polkinghorne of the Canberra Times. Far out can a team catch a break? No not like that.
(Elijah Anderson also came off limping in the NSW Cup game and left on crutches. Looks like no matter what you think it’s Seb Kris at fullback for some time).
This is such a shame for the young man. In limited time this season he’s already proven that he is ready for first grade. He only played 11 minutes in week 1 but did not disappoint, and that earned him double that in week 2. Against the ‘Phins he cracked out 75 metres from just six carries and looked threatening every time he got the ball. He got through plenty of work in defence (27 tackles no misses). The performance put him ready to establish himself as a valuable squad member and every week first grader. And now he has to watch for six weeks. If only his bones were as strong as his muscles.
This is bad news for the Milk because it compounds an already existing issue. Much like Rapana going H.A.M exacerbated the problems caused by Xavier Savage’s injury, this adds to the problems caused by Josh Papalii’s calf issue. Most reporting suggests the elder statesman won’t be back until week four at the earliest (and when it comes to old men and calves it’s better to be safe because sorry can become a very real problem). This means that Canberra have to delve further into their depth chart and NSW cup in order to cover the 10-25 minutes that Mariota was scheduled to play.
From my viewing there are three options: a conservative approach, a bet on potential, and a bolter.
The conservative approach is to bring in Peta Hola. The former Cowboy has played first grade before – 12 games for the Cows across 2019, 2020 and 2021. He earned the Raiders NSW Cup player of the year honours in 2022. There was reporting in the off-season that suggested he was disappointed he didn’t make the first grade team at any point last season, and was desperate to prove himself worthy in 2023.
Hola would be well-suited to the role. He’s a powerful runner and would be able to provide a handy 15-20 minutes of energetic hit-ups if given the opportunity. In Sunday’s loss to the Bears, he got through plenty of work and looked keen to power through anyone that dared to tackle him. He wouldn’t be asked to do much other than tear a hole in either the second or third twenty minute period of the game. It’s a role he could happily fill. It’s perhaps not exciting as other options, but there’s a job to do and he can do it.
The second option – a bet on potential – would be to bring in Trey Mooney for the same role. Mooney has all the talent in the world, and is also suited to this role. Not as powerful as Hola, he relies more on fast feet to get between defenders. He’s played first grade before – a meagre twenty minutes across one appearance last year – but it’s always felt he’s destined for more. His cup form is patchy – primarily because the club is insistent on playing him out of position at second row. The club may be trying to make him a backrower, but he’s not that.
And there’s the rub. The job is to provide 15-20 minutes of hard running in the middle, something the club has decided in its infinite wisdom is not for Trey. I don’t know why – he looks dynamite using his mobility and a hint of ball-playing through the middle third. But the club doesn’t think that’s his job at the moment. Perhaps it’s a long term bet on him filling in on the right edge. Perhaps it’s a desire to keep him mobile with a view to keep him as a middle long-term (List manager Joel Carbone has said as much in the past). But one wouldn’t think edge forward in cup footy is a good preparation for first grade.
An even more shoot-for-the-moon approach would be to bring in Hohepa Puru. The young gun came to the club from the Panthers last year and has already looked tremendous in NSW Cup footy (especially against the Eels last week, but *especially* against the Bears on Sunday). If you’ve been following these pages (like this or this) you’ll know we have Papalii sized wraps on this kid. He’s so good, and is going to be such a big part of the club going forward. We cannot wait for him to play first grade.
The problem here is that as a trial-and-train player (i.e outside the top 30) he can’t play top line without special dispensation until later in the year (thanks to Blake from Raiders Review with Blake and the Pork for reminding me). Even if the the Raiders were to seek that dispensation and have it granted, it’s a big risk. Puru is just out of SG Ball, and is only establishing his place in cup footy. He looks dynamic playing as a mobile middle, a key decision making forward in the Isaah Yeo role. But physically he feels at his limits in defence in cup footy. It’s a battle for him to win contact, and that’s only going to get harder at the next level. His body needs to develop more (he’s only 20 after all) and that will come with time. It would be a huge risk to ask him to aim up.
Even if both of those ‘small’ matters fall in his favour, I’m just not convinced Stuart is willing to turn over the attack to Puru’s influence, no matter how much it would help. As we said Puru plays as a key decision making forward. He dominates the ball, handling as much as any player on the field. He shifts middles around and chooses well when to push the ball short, long, or to tuck it under his arm and keep the bastards honest. He would add important width to the attack, and if trusted could take pressure off the dummy-halves to perform roles they’re not perfect for. But given the role is for impact forward, it would be remarkable for the Raiders to turn over their attack to a 20 year old for 15 minutes. I just can feel him being given a restricted role not suited to his style. It would be a waste.
In the end Hola seems the most likely outcome. It’s a big step up and a smaller role but one he’s familiar with. It’s the safest solution to yet another problem that Canberra have to solve. Given how many there are you can probably forgive them for playing it safe.
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