After years of promise, Jack Wighton finally arrived as a top player in 2019.
Although his side fell just short of the ultimate prize, Wighton had clearly his most successful season.
Now he must go on with the job.
If he is looking for a model to cement his pivotal-player status, he need look no further than a previous Canberra whose journey bears great similarity to his own: Laurie Daley.
From the first moment I watched Wighton in 2012, I saw clear similarities with the wild boy from Junee and I said as much. That received sceptical reactions, with many not sure on what I based the comparison.
After all, Daley was a superstar almost the moment he pulled on the lime green.
But just like Daley, Wighton loves putting his body on the line. He loves the big hits. Just like Daley before him, he is not scared at all.
In 2012 I was on the sideline when Wighton came on in the Under 20s final against the Warriors at GIO Stadium. Already a veteran of five first-grade games, his side was under the pump. A huge prop by the name of Toka Likiliki was doing the ‘Matt Dunning’ for the Kiwi side, loitering out on the right wing to terrorise the outside backs with big hits and fearsome running that caused chaos and errors.
When Wighton came on, Likiliki tried the same thing on the boy from Orange. Wighton not only rode the hit, he beat the tackle and burst 40 metres upfield.
The game turned totally on its head and the home side won through to the next week. Wighton, however, wasn’t with them for that game because he was selected in first grade.
Still, comparing someone to a player of the calibre of Laurie William Daley is a big call.
Daley debuted for the Raiders at the age of just 17 years old. He played six games in the 1987 season, most off the bench. However, the following season he played 19 games, all as a starting player. He played for NSW Country that year and in 1989 commenced a long tenure in the NSW Origin side.
It didn’t take long at all for his leadership qualities to show themselves. One moment stands out for me in particular. In 1992 he was captaining NSW Country for the first time and his passion was incredible. His constant exhortation of his teammates to keep pushing and hold the line was the major factor in his side triumphing.
He was duly made captain of the Blues for the 1992 series, a role he kept until the Super League war broke out.
Daley played 244 games for Canberra and 26 games for both NSW and Australia. He was part of three premiership-winning teams. He was the Dally M player of the year in 1995. He was a star.
While Daley’s rise to stardom was far more rapid than Wighton’s has been, that is in large part due to the high calibre of players in the Raiders squad at the end of the 1990s. Had Wighton been surrounded by the likes of Ricky Stuart, Bradley Clyde, Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher and Glen Lazarus from the moment he debuted in first grade, his career trajectory may have been similar.
Now the veteran of 156 NRL games, three games for NSW and two for the Kangaroos, Wighton finds himself surrounded by the likes of John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead, Josh Papalii, Josh Hodgson and Jarrod Croker. Like Daley back in 1989, it is now his time to shine.
When Wighton became only the fourth player from a losing side to claim the Clive Churchill medal, it was well deserved. He played a brilliant game in the 2019 decider and his efforts were right up there with those of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Daniel Tupou.
He showed the same sort of bloody minded and competitive determination to win that Daley displayed so many times.
Like Daley, Wighton has always been a fearsome tackler, frequently smashing his opponents. His hit on the Sharks’ Bronson Xerri in Round 14 of 2019 put the young centre out of the game. His tackle on the Wests Tigers’ Joel Edwards nearly saw him miss the finals in 2016.
There have been lots of other big hits laid on by the lad throughout his career, and he clearly loves doing it. A large element in Canberra’s marked defensive improvement in 2019 was Wighton not just plugging the hole in the line at five-eighth, but making it a foolhardy mission to run at that spot.
To say Daley was a bit loose in his younger days is putting it nicely. In the celebrations following the 1989 grand final, he was in charge of the Winfield Cup trophy when it fell off the back of the ute he was riding in and smashed.
There are a lot more legends about Daley’s exploits from the time, which – fortunately for him – were before the age of mass video surveillance and social media.
Wighton had no such luxury when he ran foul of authorities as he was out celebrating his birthday at the beginning of 2018.
The infraction caused him to miss the last ten games of the season, a punishment that possibly took his team’s finals chances with it. But just as Daley did, Wighton has grown up and is totally focused on his footy now, with the 2019 season his best.
While Daley was slightly faster and certainly more unpredictable – often given free rein to attack the opportunities he saw – Wighton’s kicking game (especially the long kicks) is superior and his ability to enact his coach’s game plan is developing quickly.
But it needs to keep developing. If Ricky Stuart’s side are any hope of going one better in the coming season, Wighton must totally embrace the role of chief playmaker and mark it with the same sort of brutal and uncompromising arrogance that Daley had in spades.
The problem with arriving as a genuinely influential player is that you become a target. Daley spent the last five seasons of his career having to make an inordinate amount of tackles as teams focused ball runners at him to reduce his effectiveness in attack.
Wighton may well be subjected to such strategies in 2020 and if he is, he must shoulder that burden and still perform with the ball in hand.
Oppositions need to truly fear him in attack and defence.
The question now is whether he can step up from being a very good player to being a star.