A new game of the year contender graced the screens in Round 8 as crowds returned to New South Wales venues and two coaches moved one step further down a greasy pole. Here are my talking points for the weekend.
Many experienced pundits predicted a Raiders premiership in 2020. Many more had them top of the ladder somewhere come finals time.
But others had a sneaking suspicion going one better than last year might not come quite that easy.
Like every other team in the NRL, Canberra look different to last year.
Gone are Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua. That loss isn’t to be sneezed at. But also gone is 2019 halfback Aidan Sezer.
Coach Ricky Stuart is pinning his hopes on Sezer’s English-import replacement, George Williams. He brings 184 games of experience garnered over seven seasons for the Wigan Warriors.
But some believe English halfbacks don’t perform in the NRL and the fear is that Williams might not fire.
On the plus side, Williams is no rookie. Having won a couple of Super League titles and played 15 internationals, he’s obviously got some quality. And he’s playing inside the reigning Clive Churchill medallist and Origin rep Jak Wighton. There’s a guy that’s started the season in hot form.
So why are some, like me, unconvinced Canberra will fire in 2020?
I wanted some specificity to back up my instinct. I wondered what statistic could shed some quantitative light on English halves in Australia. Frankly, there wasn’t much to go on.
(I’d be interested in any statistical analysis, but rugby league isn’t Moneyball yet. If it exists, let me know.)
A generation ago, the NSWRL saw players like Ellery Hanley come across and do well, but Hanley did best in 1988 while playing at centre. In 1989, playing for the Magpies, he won the Golden Boot. But that award is heavily weighted to international prowess. Other halfbacks like Shaun Edwards and Andy Gregory also plied their trade here in the late ’80s.
The last English halfback to win grand final was Gary Stephens in 1976.
Of the more recent imports, forwards like Sam Burgess and James Graham have excelled but their backline compatriots, no so much.
Zak Hardaker, Sam Tomkins, Kallum Watkins and Joe Burgess failed to play their best football in the NRL, but there haven’t been recent English halfbacks to help understand the problem.
So I investigated how many seasons – on average and of any background – an NRL halfback or five-eighth had played before winning their respective Dally M awards.
A superficial review of Dally M positional awards, halfback and five-eighth, since 1980 suggests you need an average of seven seasons.
That number is blown out by the number of great halves winning multiple times – each time Terry Lamb won Dally M five-eighth of the year he was one year more experienced.
Scott Prince didn’t win halfback of the year until his 13th season. Cooper Cronk was still winning in his 14th.
That would support many fans’ instinct that halfbacks need time to dominate.
Dally M points are subjective, as winners tend to be relatively dominant in their own team, instead of sharing the points around the 17. But the exercise reminded me that only the best of their generation come into the NRL and excel in their first two seasons. Andrew Johns. Johnathan Thurston. Cooper Cronk. Greg Alexander.
Being a young playmaker is tough, man.
George Williams has runs on the board but playing in an NRL backline with new shapes, methods, speeds and game plans is arguably more of a challenge than playing in the middle.
Even with Wighton in the side, only his second season in the halves, Williams is being asked to contribute to that game plan. Every week. Organise those shapes. And guide the Raiders to another grand final.
As far as his prospects for success, he’s in the window for total seasons but fans may need to manage expectations in 2020. A halfback finding his feet rarely leads to premiership success.
One prediction, though. If George Williams proves successful this year and next, look for many more English halves in the NRL.
Developing Australian playmakers takes years. Why not import one?