Last week the Raiders lost a talent they built and it was devastating. A talent they had from juniors, built up until he was a Dally M winning, Clive Churchill winning, origin and Australian representative, left for another team. It’s the ultimate version of a fear built into the Raiders psyche; a challenge and a question to our ability to build and retain talent under the sight of bigger teams. How can we succeed if every time we make something great, those with more status, more shiny things and more money can just take it away?
At the same time as they were losing one talent, they were locking in another. Chevy Stewart started his career elsewhere (the Sharks) but it was recently announced he’ll be staying in Canberra for the next four seasons. While we need to be patient it seems to me the Green Machine have a diamond to cut. Given our worries about talent walking out the door it’s a wonderful thing to see. Chevy is just 18, has only started playing NSW Cup in the last month or so, and already Canberra are locking him to a deal with a length similar to those given to Joe Tapine, and offered recently to Jack Wighton. Obviously the money is different, but the commitment is the same. In inking this deal the Milk are saying this is a player who they want to give every opportunity to be a cornerstone of the organisation.
That is a lot to put on an 18 year old (think back to you at 18 ooft yeah nah let’s stop). Stewart may not be in first grade yet but already he is being burdened with expectation. This contract is part of that. But on top of that, some of the biggest and most influential voices in the game (including those outside Canberra) are already anointing him. The Daily Telegraph listed him as the number one junior talent in the country last year. Gus Gould once described him as a ‘Tedesco like’ player. It’s a lot to live up to.
Of course we should temper the sensationalising of the less focused media and insist on patience. The thing about being an 18 year old junior footballer is that first grade is usually a fair bit away and the tendency of people to assume linear progress for young players is as silly as it isn’t supported by history. There’s a long way between junior footy and the NRL and a lot of players with big wraps have dominated youth rugby league and been nothing but a story told in pubs about the best guy that never made it.
But Stewart may be ahead of schedule. He started this year in S.G Ball (under 19s), played Jersey Flegg (under 21s) and has already plied his trade in the NSW Cup. That rate of progress is as rare as easy victories for the Milk. But it’s worth noting that the destruction of the Raiders depth chart, with injuries to incumbent Elijah Anderson, and first grade demands dragging Albert Hopoate and James Schiller to the NRL competition, may have hastened that rise.
But that doesn’t mean he’s looked out of his depth. Sure there are things to work on. The ‘adult’ tasks of a fullback/back three player in the top line (yardage/defence) will take time to develop with his body. Reading more complex ‘first grade’ attacking structures takes experience. But already it’s clear he’s capable at the NSW Cup level. Through four games he’s cracked out 20 tackle breaks, utilising a Tedesco-esque patter at the line to put defences on their heels and find gaps in the defence. He’s a comfortable ball-player with good passing instincts and has even showed handy kicking skills to earn repeat sets with little grubbers on shift plays.
It does present a curious timing question as to the potential fit of him with Xavier Savage in the future but this is nothing but a premature hypothetical at this stage. It’s pointless comparing success in lower grades to the challenge of the top level, and at just 18 the club will have a few years before they have to actually answer how these two fit together. Whether both end up competing as fullbacks, or whether one shifts to a different position is a moot question for this point in time. It’ll be a long time before Stewart is in the frame for first grade (certainly not this year and probably not next year).
Like with Hohepa Puru there’s no need to rush him before his time. NSW Cup (and Flegg) is about learning the job, and how to handle the physicality of NRL without having to match the pace of decision-making. Let him prove he has one under control and opportunities to develop the other will come. At the moment he has pace and plenty of football nous but key skills in junior footy don’t necessarily translate to the top line. And with four years with him under contract, a strong commitment to the man, and a clear path to first grade the Raiders have the time to work out what they have, and ensure they can keep him at the club when other teams (i.e. the Roosters) come knocking.
What’s clear though is that Canberra have a rare talent on their hands, which is such a relief given another is walking out the door. One that can be a big part of teams of the future, and a cornerstone for the franchise. This is without doubt a good news story. The Raiders have the perfect clay to mould. I hope they get see him reach his potential and beyond.
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‘Reading more complex ‘first grade’ attacking structures’. Puh-lease…marbles has more complex attacking structures than NRL. Over the last 20 or so years rule changes intended to speed up (and unintentionally simplify the game) have reduced the tactics and strategies of NRL. Left side, right side, dummy runner and red zone reverse angle run to the line. Kick on 4th or 5th. Chevy would’ve seen all those in the Under 10’s. Defensively, positioning himself at fullback for a 40/20 is at best a heads or tails thing with the outcome depending more on the quality of the kick rather than the prescience of the fullback, experienced or not. If he’s as good as they say then big enough physically, is soon enough. Xavier is as good as the next tackle unless he has bulked up.