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Ricky Stuart was right, Jack Wighton is a star

Jack Wighton was a key man for the Raiders in their NRL semi-final. (AAP Image/ Action Photographics, Jonathan Ng)
Roar Guru
8th August, 2016
39
1458 Reads

Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart is a polarising figure in rugby league.

Actually wait, scratch that. It isn’t really accurate to say that Stuart is a polarising figure in rugby league because for the most part there are just the Ricky haters and then a few remaining folks who think the jury is still out.

I’ve written before about the curious phenomenon of Ricky hating which is one thing that really brings fans of many different teams together. Ricky is hated from one end of the rugby league world to the other.

But on the long list of things that 2016 has proven Ricky right and the haters wrong about, there is no clearer case than that of fullback Jack Wighton, who Stuart has been a staunch defender of and advocate for though some decidedly lean periods.

Wighton has been the number one choice at fullback for the Raiders for almost two years now and it has been a period marked by a no small number of peaks but every bit as many quite deep troughs. His inconsistency has led many to call for Wighton to be moved within the team or dropped altogether.

I’ll happily front up and admit that I was one who thought Wighton should be at the very least under pressure part way through this season.

It wasn’t just the inexcusable wild pass in golden point against the Dragons (but that didn’t help). In fact it wasn’t just the truly awful error rate which still has him significantly ahead of the next worst offender in the competition (Wighton’s 33 errors put him five clear of the next placed Tom Trbojevic).

It was the overall sense that even after 30 or so matches in the role that Wighton still didn’t seem to know exactly how he wanted to contribute as a fullback.

Certainly he would have the odd great game. Round 1 2015 against the Sharks and Round 21 of last season against the Cowboys leap to mind as does Round 5 at Belmore Park this year. But overall I was of the view that Wighton was never going to have enough game sense and was always going to make too many errors to play fullback.

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I thought a move back to the centres or even to the edge back row a la Luke Lewis might be better for Wighton (I still kinda like that last idea to be honest).

I thought Stuart was being stubborn in persisting with Wighton at fullback and may even be seriously damaging the kid’s chances to make it in a more suitable position.

I was wrong. And so were a lot of other people.

Wighton may have started the season slowly but over the last five weeks he has been truly extraordinary for the Green Machine as everything seems to have finally clicked for the 23-year-old.

The following chart shows just how dramatic the improvement has been over the last five games compared to the previous 14.

 

 Jack Wighton 2016 Statistics
Avg. Run Metres Avg. Tackle Breaks Total Line Breaks Avg. Tackles Total Tries Total Errors
First 14 games 137.5 3 1 3.9 2 29
Last five games 139.4 4.4 4 5.4 5 4

It is an incredibly pronounced improvement with the good statistics like tackle breaks, line breaks and tries all on the upswing and the critical bad statistic, errors, substantially down. If you were to expand those numbers over a full season it would rate along with the very best players in the competition.

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But the raw numbers don’t tell the story of his new found role in attack. In recent weeks the boy from Orange has re-discovered the bruising power run game he deployed early in his career as a centre. After spending months and months as a hit and miss finesse ball player, Wighton is now finding that his best asset for now may be using his speed and body positioning to power through smaller defenders. The ball playing will hopefully come next as defences load up to try to stop him running through them.

Wighton has also come on rapidly as a defensive fullback. His positioning has improved markedly with even elite kickers such as Adam Reynolds and the Sharks pair unable to find much grass against him and his wingers in recent weeks. Meanwhile, his broken field tackling is second to none as Jake Granville and Ben Barba can attest to.

Most importantly he has done all of these things consistently for five games in a row with each game better than the last. This is very encouraging for a Raiders team on the rise at the right time of year and comes as the other players in the Raiders’ spine have all also reached new heights in recent weeks.

In some ways Wighton is a mirror for his coach. For many years at least some part of the dislike for Stuart has been a perception that some in the media were all too willing to credit Stuart with being an exceptional coach on the back of “coasting to a title with a Brad Fittler-led, Graham Murray developed Roosters team that basically coached itself.”

This perception was then carried over to a solid, if not spectacular tenure at the Sharks (many people tend to forget the 2008 Sharks team that made a preliminary final despite their best attacking weapons being Brett Kearney and Luke Covell) and a disastrous period at the Eels. Not to mention a disappointing period as NSW coach. The haters began to resent the somewhat fawning coverage of Stuart that seemed to fly in the face of all evidence. At least one writer referred to him as the game’s greatest fraud.

For Jack Wighton also the reputation has for many people outrun the performances on the field. Wighton was drafted into the Country side in 2013 with only 15 games experience in the NRL and during that game, and virtually every other representative appearance he has made, we have heard time and again from people like Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler about how good Wighton is, or is going to be.

Yet all the while on the field he has been an error machine with only 24 tries to his name over his first 84 games despite playing in try scoring roles in the centres, wing and fullback (and four of those tries have come in the last five games). Wighton has also compounded the perception of himself as an overhyped, under delivering light weight with some poorly chosen posts on social media.

As with Stuart it had become evident there was among many league fans, including no doubt some Raiders fans, a visceral dislike of Wighton in response to the fluffing he received in the media.

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However throughout an inconsistent 2015 and the early stages of this season as Wighton made mistake after mistake, Stuart has stood by player. At one point he declared that there was no fullback in competition he would rather have over Wighton, a claim which has seemed laughable at times as the likes of James Tedesco and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck have scorched teams up and down the ladder.

But now with Ricky’s rebuild nearing completion, the coaches’ faith in his player is being amply rewarded as Wighton has vaulted into the top tier of players at his position.

Two years ago after a painful home loss to the Dragons Ricky Stuart went on what many would consider a trademark tirade about how his team was hard done by and how they wouldn’t be able to have success until he had recruited or developed representative players to surround the talent that he had within his own squad.

It was that loss and those comments from Stuart that prompted me to write about the Ricky hating phenomenon in the first place.

That was Round 23 2014 and it was the last time that a fit and healthy Jack Wighton wasn’t selected at fullback for the Raiders. The following week against the Sharks Wighton moved to fullback and Jarrod Croker was named interim captain. Not long after that Blake Austin and Sia Soliola joined the club and others such as Josh Hodgson soon followed as a new era began at the Raiders.

Whether Wighton is the best fullback in the competition or even the most in form fullback is of course debateable. But there is zero doubt that Ricky Stuart was right about the kid. He really is very, very good.