The Canberra Raiders got a surprise when it was announced that instead of paying the fines arising from a citation on the weekend, Elliott Whitehead would take a two game suspension.
Before you yell ‘Ryan Matterson’ at some suspicious looking clouds the Raiders also said that Whitehead is suffering from a shoulder injury (four to six weeks according to the Tele). It seems this would just be a mechanism for him to rest without it costing him the coin. Or maybe he’s just tight for cash? Who knows.
Whatever the reasoning it puts the Milk in a unique position. They’re were already *light* at second-rower before this season and now they’re depth chart is being tested. Hudson Young is already with the New South Wales camp so was already unavailable. When it was just one backrower out the Raiders had a proven replacement. But in needing to find two there’s nothing but questions.
Right off the bat it highlights the Raiders struggles to fill edge backrower spots over off-season free agency. They chased Elise Katoa, David Fifita and rumours have surrounded them and Teig Wilton all year. But none are here, and Canberra’s depth chart is shallow.
One would presume Corey Harawira-Naera comes in and plays on the right hand side over the longer term. That’s his best position, and one he’s shown he can excel at. The Raiders used Whitehead running some very Harawira-Naera-esque lines last week, and god knows the Kiwi international can excel playing that same role. There will be a challenge for him handling that side of the defence with Matt Timoko, particularly with Cody Walker running riot on that side of the field. But at this stage beggars can’t be choosers. Let’s just hope he’s aware of the assignment.
But the immediate issue is now how to replace Young on the left hand side. It’s much less clear. The next person down the depth chart is Clay Webb. He’s a hardworking backrower who’s continued to prove himself worthy at Cup level. I’ve never been sold he’s ready for first grade – my concerns have always lay in his ability to solve the complex defensive problems edge forwards are asked to address in first grade. It’s not his fault – he’s 20. He’s not meant to be a fully finished product.
But Coach Stuart has been nothing but positive. Before the season he noted:
This has been his best preseason since he’s been at the club, and he started as a pretty young development player, and then he has moved into our top-30. He is maturing now and developing into a man’s physique. He is stronger, and that’s what we all tend to wait for with these kids, but he has come into his own, and off what has been a strong preseason, he deserves the opportunity to have a run.Stick here
So if I have concerns they’re meaningless given Stuart’s fulsome praise. This should be succour if Webb is picked. If Stuart thinks he can do the job then he is much better placed than me to assess.
If the leap of faith isn’t taken to give Webb the shot then afterwards it becomes less clear. Trey Mooney has played on the edge in Cup footy (to limited success) but he’s a middle forward at heart, and he missed last week with injury. Corey Horsburgh has played out there before in trial games but looked ill-suited. It feels like weakening a strength to not really strengthen a weakness to make that change. I reckon Pasami Saulo is mobile enough to play on the edge, but asking him to go 80 minutes on an edge when he hasn’t cracked 40 minutes in a game this season feels like poor planning. Hohepa Puru (pending me checking if we’re allowed to play trial and train players now) could come in, but if playing him at hooker is an unfair introduction to first grade, then backrow against Campbell Graham feels downright torturous.
After that it gets even more interesting and squinty. Jack Wighton, second rower? The idea would be insane for his long-term health but well, what’s the long term to Canberra? Seb Kris has often been mooted as a potential backrower but that was when he was bigger and less agile, and upsetting the precious balance and cohesion built through the backline over recent weeks seems ill-timed. Ata Mariota? Nic Cotric? Now that’s crazy. Let’s do it. I’ll be curious to see who Stuart names. I’ll be even more curious to see if that’s the person that plays.
Regardless of how Stuart solves this problem it’s a massive issue for the Milk. If there’s a team that you can’t be flimsy on the edges against it’s the Bunnies. A fascinatingly healed Campbell Graham on one-side, Cody Walker and his weapons on the other. It’s nothing but a battle. Here’s hoping the Raiders are ready for the fight.
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