The knife was barely out of the Canberra Raiders back when South Sydney floated the idea of an immediate player swap of Jack Wighton in exchange for Blake Taaffe. It felt like arsenic rather than salt was being poured into the collective Canberra wounds. The Milk’s favourite son, recently stolen, only to be presented early to the newly most hated team in the competition, in exchange for a player that can’t regularly crack a first 17? What a deal [insert eye roll].
An emotional man may have reacted to this news with disgust. I did. Here was the big end of the competition not only taking from those working their fingers to the bone just to get by, but also asking for their ill-gotten wares to be home delivered. Any red-blooded human would react as I presume Ricky Stuart did: with colourful language about the stomach strength of canines and a phone flung across the room in search of a wall. But in the cold light of day perhaps there’s more to this than simply a desire to extend a middle finger in the direction of Sydney. While we can (and look, probably should) react with nothing but venom and anger towards those with no interest in the Milk’s (or the league’s) success, those in charge of list management should dwell on the idea with a more dispassionate eye.
Taafe as a talent is a hard evaluation. In first grade he’s mostly played fullback or as utility. In NSW Cup footy he played more seven and six early in his career, but has increasingly shifted between fullback and five-eighth in recent times. In last weekend’s game against the Raiders cup team he looked a step above. As a fullback he’s got enough speed, but also has excellent footwork, and can happily chime in as a second-man creator on shift movements. As a half he can happily pass both ways and play first or second receiver. While it’s less clear as to whether that translates to first grade, he’ll never find out at South Sydney.
While over the long-term one would hope that the Raiders have the fullback position locked down between Xavier Savage and Chevy Stewart, and the seven position between Jamal Fogarty and Brad Schneider, there’s an intriguing question as to whether Taaffe could be a long-term six for the club. He definitely fills a gap in his relative comfort playing on the left and in the halves compared to any other option. He clearly has talent as a ball player (9 try assists in 20 games of first grade – which on a pro-rata basis would be near enough to equal or better to any Wighton season outside of 2016). He isn’t an organiser but wouldn’t need to be. There is a question about defending in the line, but that’s one that can’t be answered without time and tape.
Making the swap now could give the Raiders an opportunity to see first hand whether his undoubted talent would be suited to a first grade career. It would be a quintessentially Raiders acquisition – take the pedigree talent of another club stuck behind bigger names and give him the opportunity no-one else would. It’s how they made Blake Austin more than a utility. It’s how they made Charnze a star fullback. There’s no doubt it could work here. Whether it would is another question.
Taaffe’s contract is only for 2023 which presents a challenge. Let’s say Canberra take the deal, start Taaffe at six and he’s a revelation. The risk is obvious. They’ve just put him up in lights and again are competing with everyone for a six that everyone needs. Taaffe becomes a loaner; someone that the Raiders give the opportunity to takes the money elsewhere. Wipe the blood from your mouth and get back to the fight stuff.
It’s also hard not to get worried that this is a very convenient sacrifice for the Bunnies – someone they can send away in the knowledge that he’ll come back once the season is done, or at least they’d be in the mix if they wanted to be. His family has associations with the club going back generations. He grew up in the area. As the head of Souths Juniors Keith McCraw told the Sydney Morning Herald, “trust me, he [Taaffe] is about as South Sydney as they come.” That’s enough to make the cynic in you worried that this might be more the Tigers borrowing Harry Grant just without the official agreement.
If a switch were to be considered the inclination then becomes to test that interest in being in Canberra by trying to sign him to an extension. This is a solution but also comes with a risk in itself for two reasons. One you’re signing up someone based on (hopefully) your scouting at Cup level and incomplete tape from first grade. Two, the opportunity cost of putting it all on Taaffe when players like Jack Welsby and Jonah Pezet remain theoretical options (both are contracted to the end of 2025) is real. It also asks you to be sure about Taaffe, but also about Brad Schneider. The Raiders have already said they’re keen to extend Schneider so the question then is whether they see him exclusively as a right side half going forward, or someone that can play alongside Jamal Fogarty. Bringing Taaffe in may put in an obstacle in front of working that out through the back half of this season.
A further complication is the fact Canberra play the Bunnies in round 13. The last thing this season needs is a Jack Wighton masterclass resulting in a loss for the Raiders. But it would also mean the benefits – getting tape on Schneider, or getting a close-up view of Taaffe – are lessened in terms of how long they have to acclimatise or thrive (luckily the Raiders attack doesn’t appear to be particularly complicated so I’m sure Taaffe could learn the ropes pretty quickly).
But the real reason this won’t happen is emotional, and that’s fine. As we saw on the weekend whatever the decisions he’s made about his future, there’s an incredible amount of love for Jack within the organisation. To think they’d want one more run with Jack also makes sense. I saw the tears from Jack, from Stick. Maybe it makes sense on paper but paper isn’t where these guys have to destroy their bodies for our entertainment.
Furthermore sending Jack off to Sydney could be seen as the Milk effectively announcing they are rebuilding. They can win without him, and have done before, but sending Wighton away is the kind of permission structure that can see players turn their minds to next year. Administrators may need to keep the long term in mind but they need to also provide the best circumstances for players to win, and that means keeping Jack this season and sorting out what next year looks like in the background. And really, getting better as a team is the deal. There’s no draft pick to tank for. Making the finals should be the aim, and after that anything is possible. At the very worst young players get more exposure to big moments.
I find it hard to believe even in thinking about the long term Coach Stuart would make what would amount to a public admission that a season was over, let alone in May. It is an anathema to who is he and what has driven him for 40 years in the game. It’s why Matt Frawley has a job. It’s why (along with Joe Tapine god mode) the Raiders made the finals last year. It’s why they only missed the finals on for-and-against in 2021 despite it being one of the most chaotic seasons in recent history.
The only way I see this happening is if the relationship between Stuart, the players, and Jack sours. I’m not saying it won’t happen but it right now it doesn’t look like it. You saw how each expressed their views. Both are happy with Jack being where he is, for as long as possible. He’ll be gone next year but for now he stays. While it may not be the best option for the future, it’s the best option for now, and for Stuart and the Raiders that is, and should be, all that matters.
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