Building a team


With the announcement of Emma Barnes’ signing today the Raiders finalised the squad they had been quietly building in preparation for their season start in July.

Last year these pages had been myopic in our focus on them being able to find the talent to be competitive. More established teams had had first opportunity to build relationships with the best players in the league and we worried that the Raiders would become an afterthought for a competition that like to treat Canberra like an inconvenience at best. The chase for Millie Boyle, building on her existing ties to the club, felt serendipitous but then she didn’t come. She instead chose big money at Newcastle before deciding to take “less” money at the Roosters (equal opportunity sombrero!). Shaylee Bent was tied to David Fifita, and stayed on the Gold Coast, as though sun and sand is better than Bruce and Brodburger.

Both failed fishing expeditions expounded on this concern that the Raiders would be left behind. We needn’t have worried. What Darren Borthwick and Don Furner have been able to put together is a team of names that exceeds expectations. In Simaima Taufa they have a rolled gold leader, someone to build a culture around. If you’re not already familiar with her work, Taufa is as impressive off the field as on, and given she’s arguably the best lock in women’s rugby league that’s quite a statement.

But while we had been so focused on that central pillar around which all else could gather, we hadn’t realised management had engaged a wide-ranging and impressive array of talent. Zahara Temara is one of the most experienced halves in the competition, has represented Australia, and will play origin for Queensland before the season starts. She scored the most points in the 2022 NRLW season. Kiwi fullback Apii Nicholls was excellent for them at last year’s World Cup. Ash Quinlan, who played in last year’s grand final alongside Taufa with the Eels will make a perfect partner. Chante Temara is just 21 years old and has been stuck behind big name players a the Broncos and the Roosters, including the hooker in the Rugby League Player’s Association 2022 Dream Team, Destiny Brill.

Outside the spine the forward pack is already looking like a strength. Alongside Taufa, English international Hollie Dodd is just 19 and ready to take the NRL by storm. Similar Monalisa Soliola is unquestionably talented and ready to impress even more than she already has in her short NRL career. Indigenous All-Star Tommaya Kelly-Sines and Papua New Guinea international Ua Ravu will also be critical parts of the forward pack. Wallaroo Grace Kemp could provide some barnstorming power alongside Taufa and Dodd.

The Raiders have talent in the outside backs too. Shakiah Tungai, has played for New South Wales and Australia. Similarly Madison Bartlett has represented New Zealand. In just one season of NRLW Sophie Holyman has already revealed herself to be a talent. Mackenzie Wiki was at the World Cup last year. Cheyelle Robins-Reti has played wing for the Black Ferns and will make the transition to league. Felice Quinlan and local product Elise Smith will be important members of the squad.

There are plenty of names I’ve left out, but the message is that Canberra have assembled a much more impressive squad than assumed possible. Partly that’s the more fluid nature of a sport that is still establishing itself as professional. There’s more players moving around in search of permanent work. There’s also more opportunities to establish oneself as a representative player in that environment, as players move in and out of suitable spots and even the game in as financial motives guide them.

But while those circumstances can contribute to a quality squad, or at least the appearance of one, it’s worth noting that this was an example of maximising Canberra’s comparative advantages and utilising every pathway available to bring players to the club. The Milk found players in Queensland through an apparent relationship with the Burleigh Bears (both Zemare and Chante Temara are from there). They went to England and got Hollie Dodd. They leveraged existing relationships with the club to get Mackenzie Wiki and Monalisa Soliola, as well as player siblings like the Temaras and the Quinlans. It feels good but it’s also good business. They even got into the local area such as the Riverina to get Kemp, Ravu and Smith as the home-spun heroes. Robins-Reti was picked up initially through a highlights package sent to Coach Borthwick.

These pathways might be familiar if you’d paid attention to Raiders rugby league at any point in the last forty odd years. But they didn’t stop there. They also used the relationships with new coach Darrin Borthwick to nab themselves some serious players from last years Parramatta team. Taufa, Quinlan and Kelly-Sines were with Borthwick at Parramatta. Madison Bartlett’s previous relationship with Borthwick played a role in her coming to town. Chante Temara acknowledged the importance of Borthwick in making her choice:

“I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Raiders from other people. Darrin really sold it to me because he gave me a lot of confidence as a player.”

Chante Temara to the Canberra Times.

It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t just Borthwick that attracted players. The Canberra Times also reported that women’s rugby league legend (and Raiders board member) Katrina Fanning being a key part of attracting players.

This personal aspect was once a familiar one to the Raiders. Belcher and Meninga came to Canberra in part due to their relationship with Wayne Bennett. Maybe Taufa and Temara can be the new version. Ricky Stuart brought plenty of players to town based on his relationships built at previous stops. That pipeline has dried up as his previous stop is further away than an Action Bus Stop, and his ability to leverage reputation is probably more described as mixed.

None of these a particularly new to the Milk as we noted. But it’s a useful reminder to the club for both the establishment of this side, its ongoing success, and a recognition of how the club more generally can go about ensuring it’s viability over the longer term. It’s pleasing to see the effort and success that has gone into building this team so far. It’s important the Raiders value the women’s game, and at least from our outside view the maximising of every pathway suggests appropriate resources have gone into building this team.

While I would caution against expecting immediate flourishment it’s a positive sign that the right amount of effort and resources is being put into this side off the field. If the same endeavour is put into planning their on field performance, then we could be in for something special.

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