Without Woolford


A downside that emerged from the aftermath of Canberra’s ongoing winning streak is the news that starting hooker Zac Woolford had suffered a category one Head Injury and would be forced to miss 11 days. This would effectively rule him out from the Raiders next match against the Manly.

It was obvious early in the season that Woolford was a critical part of the Raiders 2022 success. His ability to deceive around the ruck, his incredible ability to *only* run when there was metres to be had, and his ability to play with width off the ground, were all such a huge part of the Canberra attack. When he joined the side last year they were averaging 14 points a game. After that they averaged 27 the rest of the season. It was light and day. They went from a staid and sterile attack to one that suddenly was putting points on teams for fun. All it took was Zac, Joe Tapine going H.A.M, and Jamal Fogarty’s return from injury.

But apparently it was only everyone else but the coaching staff who saw this transformation. Come the start of 2023 Zac was again watching from the outside. The first two games of the year Danny Levi was preferred, and Canberra’s attack returned to the stationary nature that had plagued it early in 2022. Zac returned in round 3 (albeit for only 25 minutes), played the good 35 minutes of the Panthers debacle (they were down 12-6 when he left and were Fogarty falling over the line from tying it up). Since then he’s helmed an attack that has jumped from averaging 14 points a game to 26 during it’s current win streak.

It’s hard to attribute causality here but it’s worth noting that over that period that the Raiders have flourished with him at hooker. In the games where their attack has really thrived he’s been a big part of it. The fast start against the Dolphins had him on the field. 26 of the 34 points scored against the Bulldogs had him at the helm. All twenty of their courageous points against Broncos involved him. It’s a bit part – he’s only got one try assist for the season – but it’s his ability to enable other players to do their thing that has been so important.

His absence presents two big problems for the Milk. Firstly with Danny Levi and Adrian Trevilyan on the injured list, there’s no easy solution available. Tom Starling seems much more suited to an impact role (or at least, skipping the first rotation of middles) and so it seems Coach Stuart will be looking for someone to take the opening shift at rake.

Hohepa Puru has played hooker recently in Cup footy but man it’s a lot to ask a debutant to perform a role they’ve not even perfected at lower grades. I love Puru, and would love for his entry into the top line to be scoped to do the things he’s good at. Twenty or so minutes at hooker to start a match is borderline torture rather than a smooth path for development. It doesn’t allow Puru to do what he does best (distribute at first receiver) and puts a heap of pressure on him to be the target for opposition middles that he is already working to overcome in Cup footy.

The other options are either Matt Frawley or Brad Schneider. Both are halves, but both have experience at 9. Schneider has played hooker coming up through junior footy, and even when he debuted it was nominally as a utility rather than a half. Coach Stuart has often referred to him as a ‘footy player’ indicating his ability to play whatever role given. He’s been 18th man a lot lately, and has long term value to the club, so one wouldn’t be surprised if he was given a shot. But it too is a lot to ask of the young man.

Frawley has done the role as recently as last year in first grade and while it would hardly inspire, it may be the choice the Coach takes in order to manage the situation by doing the least damage. You don’t throw a young player to the wolves. You get twenty minutes of the ‘old man’ (ha he’s 28) doing old man things and not letting anyone down. You hopefully scrap together enough minutes to give Tom Starling to do the things he does. Of course is he healthy? The club lists him out until round 12 and he certainly isn’t playing at the moment. He might be in the same position as Danny Levi.

I also have this vibe that Stuart could be talked in to trying Corey Harawira-Naera at the position as a makeshift solution. Call it a hunch and nothing else (it’s certainly not based on anything intelligent or sourced – though, as my dawg @chiupheartfull reminded me, he did play there for the Maori All-Star team). I’m not convinced it’s a good idea, but at the very least it would bring back some balance and coverage to the bench when he returns to it after the opening act. Harawira-Naera has been waiting for a chance to get back into first grade. It would be weird, but maybe this is how.

Apart from filling the ‘starting’ role, it puts a lot of pressure on Tom Starling as a nine. Starling does a lot of things well, and what makes him a good match with Woolford is that they are generally the opposite things to what Zac does well. Starling doesn’t provide good or quick services, isn’t deceptive around the ruck. He can sniff an opportunity to run, or to combine with his good mate Hudson Young, but the next sweeping movement that starts at his hands with a inch-perfect 25m flat ball from the ground of the ruck will be the first. The absence of Woolford will put more eyes on him for longer, and with more pressure to make a difference.

The Raiders will miss Zac, both in structure and in effect. We hope Zac is ok – it looked like a nasty blow he copped – and recovers as quickly and safely as possible. Don’t mess with head injuries people. But good teams find a way to overcome moments like this. The Milk have put together five on the trot, so surely they’re a good team.


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One comment

  1. good to see the Raiders reclaim some mojo with the inclusion of ZW
    reluctance to go full on with ZW is indeed strange
    Intangibles like tempo,timing,pace & rhythm…
    May be !”risky” playing Schneider,but worth it to get him on the park with Fogarty and Wighton,/
    could be special…
    Raiders wins have meant not having to seek solace on this site,trying to make sense of it all/…heres to the winning streak!


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