Before the season we were confused as to why Zac Woolford had dropped so far down the Milk’s depth chart.
Danny Levi had apparently trained the house down, according to the coach. Tom Starling, while being very good at what he’s very good at, hadn’t obviously progressed in other skillsets since he barged onto the scene in 2020. Adrian Trevilyan – the possible answer to every question the Raiders have at 9 – was still injured and really, what’s potential but a dream and an excuse to play fantasy football. Woolford’s wasn’t so much cast aside as put back to the end of the bench where he’d spent much of his NRL career, as if 2022 was just an epic night that ended back at the wrong house.
Woolford would have been within his rights to be confused. As we’ve stated in these pages the attack changed with him at the helm. Alongside Joe Tapine becoming Cronus and Jamal Fogarty coming back from injury, the Raiders attack went from staid to studly. 14 points a game pre Zac, 27 a game post Zac. If it was any more obvious there would be a now problematic pop-punk anthem about it. But alas Woolford started this season as close to first-grade field as me (ok a bit closer, but I swear I’ll do a job if you put me in Sticky…ok I’d cry in panic the first time someone ran at me. Ok yeah leave me out). That came even after two trial games from hell in which the attack looked exactly like it would, except for the twenty minutes that Woolford was back with the first-string in the opening game.
It’s probably fair to say this was met with equal confusion by most watching. Danny Levi is a good footy player but as we said before the season he felt like doubling down on a set of skills that Tom Starling mostly provided. Woolford’s ability to create and deceive around the ruck and to play with width from the ground made him the player providing skills that no one else would. But in his infinite wisdom Coach Stuart, a man who leaves more footy knowledge in the loo after his morning coffee than we’ll have in our lifetime, also left Zac out.
Canberra’s attacking numbers without Woolford haven’t been as stark this time around. He only played 25 minutes his first game back, and then the Panthers thing happened (is it worth pointing out the Raiders lost 41-6 without him on the field. Ah well too late now). But it’s hard to disagree that under his stewardship that their attack looked as sharp as it has all season against the Broncos. They didn’t get a lot of opportunities (thank you handling errors) but when they did they managed to create three red-zone tries, and Woolford was instrumental in the lead up on all three. Two through an expected but quality medium length pass to start a shift, and a third where he created the break through spotting that Pat Carrigan was tardy and tired around the ruck. Given that’s three more red zone tries than they’ve otherwise scored all season (all numbers approximate) it seems Woolford has earned his spot.
I still haven’t worked out what Stuart was thinking in delaying Woolford’s ascension like this. He’d been clearly all-in on Levi after what he considered an impressive off-season. There are skill differences – Levi is more of a runner and a tireless defender, Woolford more of an old-fashioned ruck manipulator. Perhaps Stuart wanted his nine running and not creating, delegating key attacking decisions further down the spine to Savage and Wighton. Perhaps their respective return will make that stylistic preference more obvious. If you squint you can see the logic but it’s never been articulated publicly why Woolford wasn’t the choice.
For now it seems Woolford is back being critical to the success of this side, as he was last year. He actually forms a pretty good thunder and lightening approach with Tommy Starling, allowing Canberra to mix and match depending on the game demands. We saw that against the Broncos when Woolford played his longest stint yet and the Milk prospered. Yet again the Raiders have fallen into their best set up despite their efforts to pursue other avenues. But Levi will be back and we’ll see how strong that view holds among the coaching staff.
Safe to say I hope Zac continues to get these opportunities.
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