It’s been eight rounds and more weeks that the Raiders have had to shuffle a backline to mask the absence of Xavier Savage. Though not the only reasons, this lack of cohesion and spark the make-shift set up has had have made the attack insipid. Canberra have been waiting for someone to come along and fix this mess. This week Savage likely returns to first grade and boy does he have a big challenge on his hands.
Previously he’d been seen as a luxury for the Milk – a rare bit of unshaped talent that could be anything and everything. He was that sweet slice of hope that only lotto tickets and untested talent can bring. Buy the tickets and talk about a future that might never eventuate. His pace, his agility, the uncontained way he saw the game, were all things that could be elite, could be game-changing, but with other, more qualified and experienced players ahead of him, they weren’t necessary. We just got to look at that hope with a knowing smile at what might be.
Before the season he’d been the point of difference. Most people covering the Raiders saw him as the person that could turn a good offence in 2022 into a great one in 2023. It was a lot to pin on one player, and that was before he broke his jaw.
But the stakes have changed. Now it’s not a hope of difference but a desperate need. The future is now and right now the Raiders need X to be a part of turning this ship around. It may be an unfair ask. Savage certainly has the talent, the potential spark, the brilliance, that can turn nothing into something. But he’s just finding his feet at this level, and Canberra aren’t exactly providing him an easy path to success.
This is made only more desperate by the impending departure of Jack Wighton next season. Good teams normally have bonafide stars in their spine. The Raiders instead have Jack Wighton (for now) and players like Jamal Fogarty, Zac Woolford et al that are all critical parts of a good team but they are not game-changing talent on their own. Savage is the only member outside Wighton in the spine that has the potential and talent to be elite at his position. If Canberra are to succeed this year they’ll need Savage to start being elite more often. If they are to flourish in the future his skills will have to grow.
To this point those moments have been present, but neither consistent nor constant. Think the run against the Sharks in his first season. Or when he hit the nitrous against Souths last year with such velocity and ferocity that Matt Timoko was lifting his arms in celebration when Savage was only at the 20 and still theoretically under pursuit. The clear air he turned into a try as the only non-depressing moment of last year’s semi final loss to the Eels. Or, as evidence that rapid wheel isn’t his only elite skill, this remarkably pick up off his shoes in support to score against the Roosters.
These moments, while not as plentiful as your selfish correspondent would prefer, show a set of skills that can put Savage ahead of others at his position, and potentially give the Raiders an ‘edge’ they wouldn’t normally have. They are part of a developing package, one that hopefully includes improved ball-playing skills (which weren’t bad, but rather those of a talented twenty-something still finding his way). Put them all together and you have what could be an impressive set of capabilities on the offensive end.
Former Raiders custodian Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad had similarly provided a elite set of skills, but his focused on the defensive end. His ability in both organisation, contact, and goal-line scramble had been a critical part of Canberra’s successful late-season runs in 2019 and 2020, and notably absent as the season cratered after his injury in 2021. We had always waited for the offensive side of his game to develop, and there were moments we thought indicative of more, they never quite came (though given how he’s performed with the Warriors, maybe that wasn’t his fault).
Savage, at the moment, mirrors this imbalance. The moments we’ve shown above prove the existence of capacities on the offensive end, but as yet he’s defensive skills remain undeveloped. His positioning remains perplexing at times. On kicks and otherwise, he can find himself consistently on the wrong side of the ruck, or well away from where a ball could be, sometimes strolling along as though he’s expecting someone else to clean up his mess. Additionally, as younger man yet to grow into his body, he could be overpowered at time, a magnet on the goal line when most full-backs defend a ‘A’ in order to shift under the defence with the ball and cover kicks.
In the past there had been plenty of examples of Savage simply not being big or strong enough to make critical tackles on the goal line. But towards the end of last year we did see glimpses that ability can built, such as his part of a try (and game) saving hit on Jerome Hughes against the Storm in round 18. And in the pre-season there was evidence that Savage was ready to improve in this regard. With a full pre-season with the top line behind him, and another year under his belt, he seems as physically developed as he’s ever been. Alas a broken jaw may have put paid to that. Before the season Savage looked bigger and stronger and stronger than before. That strength and girth (ahem) will be critical to improving his goal line defence. Let’s hope he still has it after the trauma he suffered.
As to his positioning and organisation that’s a matter of time. He may never have Nicoll-Klokstad’s elite skills in that regard, but neither will Charnze have his clean heals. The key is reducing the distance between the two as much as possible (in both the general sense as well as Savage’s distance from the ball). The only way to do that for X is to learn on the job. Normally we’d been stoked with the progress Savage has made. At just twenty he is barely touching the edges of what his body is capable of, and with more time in the top grade the hope is that improvement comes, and as quick as possible. Canberra needs the help.
If he doesn’t improve it becomes a problem, though mostly for Savage rather than the club. They have a backup plan in Chevy Stewart. A four year deal for Stewart and his rapid ascension through the grades does put pressure on Savage to continue to improve. The young(er) custodian is probably two years away from regular first grade, if he makes it (which despite our best assumptions is never guaranteed). But there’s no denying what a four year deal means. Savage was once the competition. Now he has it coming for him.
But that’s a long term problem. For now the Raiders need everything that Savage can offer to help turn around a moribund offence. It’s massive weight to put on a player that wasn’t deemed ready for first grade by the coach this time last year. Here’s hoping that Savage can shoulder it.
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