Starling’s new job?

BY DAN

An intriguing addition, and possible amelioration, to Canberra’s attacking woes was the use of Tom Starling against the Dolphins. In addition to his usual hooking role the young rake took on the role of a loose forward, operating at first receiver and using his pace and agility to take on slowly retreating primary defenders.

It’s an novel solution to a range of issues that have plagued the Raiders this year. Canberra have had troubles adding width to their attack this (partly, though not exclusively, because both players currently performing the dummy-half role are limited in their ability to pass long off the ground). They’ve got two very similar rakes, and only eighty minutes of field time. In addition Elliott Whitehead is either not passing, or not being asked to play a big role in passing, in his new role at 13. That could be because it’s a new job, he’s 33 and is busy trying to manage to get through the contact and worry about the rest later. Other players that can perform as key decision-making forwards – like Hohepa Puru – probably aren’t ready for first grade (and aren’t allowed without special dispensation anyway).

Notably the other middles also haven’t been asked to add width to the attack as they had last year. Then Joey Taps, Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler and even Josh Papalii (occasionally) would provide a tip-on or more substantial link passing across the middle third (along with the departed Adam Elliott, Ryan Sutton and Harry Rushton). It’s hard to tell if strategy, structure, opportunity or weather has stopped them from doing it this season, but it’s been notably absent.

So against the Dolphins Starling was given the role of an extra ‘ball-player’ in the middle. Mostly he did so running the ball as a agile middle, one pass off the ruck (because how else would he get the ball). 107 metres was good, and the most positive thing was him in a little bit of space, using his agility to target retreating forwards and ruck defenders. It was the freest he’s felt since V’landys had his dumb rules cuckholded. He even looked to create on occasion – the only way he knows how – by kicking for Hudson Young. On occasion he was first receiver on shifting movements, allowing Fogarty and Wighton to set up wider.

Starling suggested he enjoyed the role:

Yeah it’s good fun. It’s getting out there and playing some footy, and you know, put a bit of ruck speed in around that ruck with me and Danny on the field.

Starling on Raiders.com.au

In a sense it suits his skills. Starling thrived in 2020 and 2021 because there was space for him to jump out from the ruck and find tiring defenders to test one-on-one. In this role he’s doing that, only he doesn’t have the added requirement of getting past the markers. Instead he’s set one pass wide, able to simply eye-off the defence and press go. It also maximises the efficiency of Canberra’s roster, allowing Levi and Starling to play minutes together, and ensuring that Whitehead doesn’t haven’t to manage 80 minutes in the middle (which is frankly inhumane working conditions).

But as a solution to the Raiders attacking malaise it feel like a retrofit for a problem that could be solved more easily. Canberra doesn’t have width in it’s attack by design. That’s design in terms of the attacking philosophy that they’ve implemented through the first two weeks of the season. It’s also through the design of the team-list, bringing in two different rakes that cannot add accurate width without floating a pass or taking a few steps out from the ruck (both of which allow defences to collapse on whoever ends up with the ball in their hands.

Having Starling at first receiver may add width but it puts more key decision-making power in the hands of someone who has a lot of talents but isn’t a creator. It means it’s another pass, and more time, before one of Canberra’s halves actually get their hands on the ball. If the design is just to get someone attacking the ruck to create a bit of pace and movement in a set, then surely more creativity at 9 and getting Joe Tapine 12 or so hit-ups he’s taken a game so far. Finally, it also means that the Milk are playing two hookers in defence. Both are energetic defenders, but it does give the opposition middles two targets to aim for to win quick rucks. Most of all it didn’t add any points to the attack because it doesn’t solve the key issues around the ruck.

Without wanting to add to the chorus calling for a team-list change their are solutions on the roster that can do this without having to play two hookers. It’s quickly becoming a fan-forum cliche to call for Zac Woolford so I won’t, but I will remind all that the club averaged 27 points a game with him as hooker last year, and 14 per game before he came. I see him there at 18 on the team-list and can’t decide if it’s a good sign or just me getting carried away with the tea-leaves. If there a reasons for not pursuing that pathway (and look, there probably are. I also thought Mick Dobson was going to be a star) then at the very least it seems a better approach would just be to get the halves at first receiver more often, and get the middles to add that width when it’s appropriate.

Of course it’s possible this was a one-time thing driven by the weather, and the exhaustion of Elliott Whitehead. Starling said as much, suggesting there wasn’t a hard and fast plan to do it last week but rather a casual mention in the lead up (which, let’s be frank, is how I imagine Stuart coaching attack at the moment). It could also be something that will be expanded, and we’ve just seen it’s embryonic form. Coach Stuart and his brains trust probably have a plan for this that we’re not seeing. These things are all true.

Man I hope they are.

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