It’s been a tough start to the year for the Milk, and it’s taking courage to set things right.

Two losses in painfully close circumstances. A hard-fought victory on the back of nothing but grit, resolve and a little bit of flair steadied the ship. The way they defended their line for multiple sets in the back half of the game while also fire-walking was impressive. This team has plenty of flaws, but no one would ever question their courage under fire. Maybe their intelligence, but not their bravery.

But another challenge keeps coming for the Milk – injuries. Canberra lost Danny Levi on the weekend for a protracted period (8-10 weeks), having already entered the game with a makeshift back three when Nic Cotric was ruled out with a hamstring issue (for 4-6 weeks). Add to that Xavier Savage’s broken jaw, Ata Mariota’s broken arm, Josh Papalii’s calf issue and Jordan Rapana’s flirty shoulder and the list of unavailable players is becoming comically extensive. Unfortunately the first bye week is more than a month away so there’s no respite. There’ll be no waiting for a break in the clouds to solve their problems.

Finding a replacement for Levi is probably the easiest of the lot. Many of us have been pining for Zac Woolford, and one would presume he comes directly in to the starting lineup for Levi, allowing Starling to play a more flexible role shifting between nine and loose forward. Woolford’s ability to play with width in attack and provide more consistent service may unlock the Milk’s attack as he did last year. But equally the fact he’s barely been seen with the first unit this year (including in the trial matches) may mean it takes a second for things to click into gear.

Additionally, regardless of your thoughts on Levi it was clear that he was Coach Stuart’s preferred option at hooker so this is still a noteworthy loss. I suspect there was a preference for Levi’s admittedly impressive defensive work-rate, so this will put more pressure on Woolford, but also other middles like the Red Horse, Joey Taps and Pasami Saulo to continue their impressive defensive efforts (ps Pasami needs a nickname – open to suggestions, preferably something that references how he’s always the hardest working man on the field). This middle defence has held up this season, but it feels like we’re pushing that horse if we keep packing things on its back.

Josh Papalii is hopefully returning from his elongated early season break this coming weekend, and not a moment too soon. Trey Mooney was fine in a very limited ten minute stint, but with so much experience watching it feels good to have a legitimate star coming back. I’m not sure how fit Papa is going to be – I doubt he spent the four weeks he’s had off working too hard – a calf injury will do that to you. So again his return, while replete with benefits, won’t be a simple addition for the Milk. Let’s call it a more complicated equation and ask someone who remembers algebra to solve it.

The bigger challenge is what is happening to the back five. Outside of Matt Timoko, arguably no one in the back five is currently starting in the position they were meant to before the season. Nic Cotric and Jordan Rapana, stalwarts of the wings over the last five years, are both out, and Savage won’t be back for a while. In their place the Baby Raiders backline has performed admirably – particularly Timoko who has been brutal in yardage and blood-thirsty in attack. The glee with which they’ve all embraced yardage work has been inspirational. This is particularly the case for Albert Hopoate. who’s statistical output (over 180m a game) matches up to the eye test of a courageous and powerful worker in exit sets. Even Seb Kris, trying to fashion together his game at fullback, looked more comfortable playing in *just* searing heat rather than soup and/or mud.

But it’s a substantial amount of pressure for this back five to bear and will have consequences. The Sharks are a very good attack but the Canberra defence looked to have them covered, if not for what seemed to me like individual errors of decision-making and cohesion from young players. James Schiller got cold beaten by Ronaldo Mulitalo for the first try on the weekend. Harley Smith-Shields failed to read in on Nikora’s hard line in the 71st minute, probably a bit wary because Hopoate had failed to follow him in on Ramien’s 55th minute try. These minor errors having major consequences are not isolated to this victory. Almost every member of this inexperienced unit has had difficult diffusing kicks at some point this season with very real consequences.

There is a silver lining. It’s clear that Jordan Rapana can’t go on forever and with so much change to the roster coming over the next 24 months (nearly the entire roster will be in the free-agency market come 1 November this year) Canberra really needs to get an idea of which of this youth movement is to form the core of their back five going forward. Matt Timoko has proved that he’s ready, and Seb Kris’ looks out-of-place at fullback but not out of place in the team. An extended run for Hopoate, Jimmy Thrills and Handsome Harley is exactly what is needed to give them the space to test out the room at first grade level.

With this comes short term pain and the mistakes of youth that come with it. That’s nothing new for the Milk. It’s another obstacle to overcome, and with this injury list just another thing to add to the pile. They’ve shown they’re up for the toil. Time to get to work.

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