Albert Hopoate will miss the game this Friday to attend his sister’s wedding (congratulations!) and it’s seen the return of Xavier Savage.
The opportunity to return Savage to a winning team put Coach Stuart in an intriguing position. Savage hasn’t looked like a standout in Cup footy since he’s returned from a broken jaw. That’s no shock. For reference, he broke his fucking jaw. Contact sports is hardly the first thing to come naturally in those circumstances where recent meals have included duck a la sponge and ratasmoothie. Last weekend he was fine. He had some bright moments but didn’t stand out (not like Brad Morkos or Trey Mooney anyway). He didn’t shy away from contact but didn’t dominate. If anything I left the game thinking that in a perfect world he gets a bit more time getting up to game speed before coming into first grade.
Then I saw Seb Kris play fullback on Saturday. For about the third week in a row he had the best game of his fullback career. Each week he looks better positioned in defence, safer under the high ball. Yardage carries have never been an issue for him so that he keeps crashing into and through defences in that work is no surprise. But against the Dolphins he showed much greater comfort as the second-man in structured attacking plays on both sides of the ball. On one shift he scored tearing onto the end of a well-shaped movement, on another he threw the perfect out-ball to Jordan Rapana to set up the Raiders first try.
It was the kind of stuff that the team hopes to one day get consistently from Savage, only it came with none of the concerns around defence, positioning and assorted dirty work. Given the club had been aching for some more vigour in attack it was beyond welcome. It was a drink of water to man in the desert. It was a ritz cracker to a man who’s watched Delirious too many times. For a brief period of time (and certainly not the whole game) the attack looked like it should.
In a sense we shouldn’t have been surprised at Kris’ trajectory. We noted before the season that Coach Stuart has an overwhelming amount of faith in Seb Kris. Never the most talented man, Kris is instead a tireless worker and a seemingly willing learner. There seems to be little that Kris won’t do in order to get better. It stands in almost direct contrast with Coach Stuart’s veiled criticisms of Savage in the early part of last season as having all the talent in the world but (possibly unfairly? How can one tell from the outside?) questioning his work ethic.
With the retention of Kris at fullback, and the subsequent inclusion of Savage on the wing Coach Stuart has put himself in an interesting position. At the beginning of the season there was a general belief that Savage would be the Canberra attack’s point of difference. That X’s unconventional (or perhaps unlearned) eyes for the game could match with his out-and-out pace and be the thing that turns a staid attack into a daring one. Instead Stuart has chosen the continued development of Kris, and a slightly less clear pathway for Savage to a position most had thought his by entitlement.
While the position is understandable given Kris’ performance in recent weeks, Stuart is now faced with a conundrum. Where to from here? If the presumption is that Savage is a long term fullback, how long does Stuart let this Kris at fullback thing ride? Is it one loss? Two? Is Savage now fighting for a spot rather than returning to one? Given the coach’s comments about Hopoate having earned a return, is Savage back to Cup footy after, waiting for another chance?
What if Kris never cedes the position, instead continuing to improve in a position that many (including me) were unsure of his fit? The trajectory so far has been impressive (and not for the first time proven me wrong). Is this now a battle for fullback? Is Savage going to fit in elsewhere? Perhaps Savage is a long term winger (his speed says yes but his yardage work says no). But given a matter of weeks ago he was meant to be the polish on the workmanlike Green Machine it’s a much different conversation to have.
It’s likely this will all be solved by the magic of time. One would think Savage finds his way back to fullback at some point this year, hopefully due to his own performance, but also probably because of the performance of the side, and/or injury. But perhaps there’s also a reality where Kris becomes a fulltime fullback. I never would have believed it until the last few weeks but it can’t be discounted. While this may present problems, it does mean the Raiders have gone from having one fullback to two (with another in the pipeline so to speak). It’s harder to manage, but it’s a better place to be.
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