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Ricky v the rookies: Sticky has to turn to youth to replace Wighton, but who should it be?

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22nd January, 2024
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This year’s edition of the Canberra Raiders might not be one that inspires an enormous amount of optimism.

Last year’s overperformed a lot, and relied on other teams falling on their faces to make the finals while themselves being a pretty punishing watch at times.

Styles don’t matter if you’re winning and Ricky Stuart’s men made an artform of it. Every game was a drag, but they came out on top enough for that not to be a problem.

It’s been oft repeated that, to keep the fans onside, a coach either needs to win or to be doing something else sufficiently positive to give the impression that winning will follow.

That can be stylistic, like playing good footy, or it can be through giving young guys a chance, or being part of a rebuild.

Sticky himself is something of an outlier in that, whatever he does, very little of the criticism lands on him. Canberra is Ricky and Ricky is Canberra, so it’s hard to imagine one without the other after so many years.

In their heart of hearts, though, Raiders fans will know that 2023 wasn’t as good as it looked, and realistically, so was 2022.

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The generational change away from the 2019 Grand Final side is well underway and, with the departure of Jack Wighton to South Sydney, the central part of that team is gone.

The chances are that Canberra will struggle to win games this year – the bookies have them third bottom – but there is a chance for that second part of the maxim to be ture.

Going into this year, it’s going to be a riot of young guys, because two of the spine spots are up for grabs and, unless Ricky really leans into his most conservative feelings, some of them are going to play.

Wighton is gone, freeing up the 6 jumper, and it’s unlikely that Seb Kris will continue to moonlight as a fullback. Jordan Rapana might step in, but that, too, would be a stopgap.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 27: Kaeo Weekes of the Sea Eagles during the round 24 NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the Manly Sea Eagles at GIO Stadium on August 27, 2022 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Kaeo Weekes. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

So who are the new options?

Chevy Stewart and Ethan Strange are the two big hopes, with both having played for NSW under-19s and come through the bulk of last year in the 1 and 6 for the Raiders NSW Cup side, who finished fourth and made the finals.

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Xavier Savage has already played a decent amount of first grade but wasn’t trusted by Sticky and ended up back in reggies last year, mostly as a winger, while Kaeo Weekes has arrived from Manly in similar circumstances, where he had made first grade but was discarded late in the year.

That’s two next big things and two false starts, but four guys who all have the talent to come in and make a real impact at Canberra.

It’s also four guys with a lot of NSW Cup sample size between them, which can help us look to the data to discern who might cope best with the transition to the NRL.

The difference between first and second grade shouldn’t matter too much in the data comparison as we’re comparing only stats from that competition, but it is worth pointing out that Strange was mostly a five eighth, Weekes and Stewart almost exclusively played fullback and Savage split time between 1 and a wing.

Weekes, obviously, also played a different system with Blacktown Workers, but that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Still, on the key metrics there’s plenty we can learn.

The topline is that Ethan Strange deserves the shot at the 6 jumper. His performances at Cup level are of the sort that would suggest someone who could take the next step, and far more so than his nearest competition in Weekes.

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Though their roles were obviously different at different clubs, Strange’s metrics on creativity, both for others and for himself, were by far the best.

In particular his running were standouts, with a real desire to get close to the line and an ability to break tackles once he got there.

These are skills that one would expect a fullback to be best at, but it was the five eighth who came out on top.

His ability to put people into space was second in the sample to Stewart – more on whom later – but when averaged for possession, Strange leapfrogged his teammate.

The numbers reflect an above average ball carrier and creator – in fact, his tackle breaks numbers in the NSW Cup would have topped the NRL in 2023 and his line break assists would place him between Nicho Hynes and Jahrome Hughes, which is pretty good company to be in as a running half.

This shouldn’t be surprising.

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The Raiders list his height as 190cm and his weight as around 100kg, which is pretty huge for a half and almost exactly the same as the man he would replace, Wighton, and Strange is just 19 so could conceivably have more growing in him.

That helps on the other side of the ball, too. Strange has the best Effective Tackle percentage, suggesting that he does well when he gets to tackles, as well as the highest number of one-on-one tackles and forced turnovers.

He also tops the list for Line Breaks Caused, though that might be a function of having played more as a frontline defender than the other three in the sample.

Fullbacks tend to be there once a line break has already been caused, and when one factors in Try Causes, the negative events that actually lead to points again, Strange is actually the best of the four options.

The big question will be whether Sticky trusts a 1-game rookie to play in the halves from Round 1.

In a straight shootout between Weekes and Strange, the stats are very clear. Strange plays.

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The biggest question might be over the 1 jumper.

Weekes, Savage and Stewart are all decent options at second grade level, but there might be something in both Stuart and Manly coach Anthony Seibold looking beyond their guys by the end of the 2023 season.

Stuart might find a place for all three, but in different roles. Weekes and Stewart are a bit of a dead heat as fullbacks – Kaeo tops it in yardage and set starting – while Chevy is the better passer and safer under the high ball.

If Sticky opts for Strange to partner Jamal Fogarty, a real kick and control style of half, then he might need a passer at the back, which would be Stewart.

That likely means he continues the style of footy from last year, in which case he’d be as well maintaining Seb Kris as his 1 as a pure battering ram rather than handing that over to the youngster.

Where Kaeo will get the look in is on the bench. Ricky has long favoured Tom Starling as a spark plug in the 14 jumper (and there’s a whole other article in their equally poor hooker options) but, like Seibold, he might ultimately see Weekes as an option there.

On activity-based metrics, the former Sea Eagle is superb. This is a kid who gets about the field, reflected in excellent numbers for Off Ball Value (OBV), an advanced stat that measures things like push supports and decoys, and Involvement Rate (IR), which tracks how much a player is doing on a per minute basis.

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Throw in that Weekes covers both half positions, plus fullback and has also played as a hooker and you’ve got a serious low-minute, high intensity option for a bench utility.

Whether the player himself would like that or not is another question, but he profiles well for it.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

So what about the X-man? Savage looked an excellent, if raw, prospect in 2022 but has fallen off the radar at Canberra, featuring just once last year.

In Cup, he was mostly a winger and that seems to be where he will stay. His stats in yardage remain excellent, with a Metres Per Run that would be top five in the NRL, and his ability to break tackles is also high level.

Defensively he has improved, but it still remains an area of weakness, as does the high ball.

As anyone who has seen him knows, he has pace to burn and, as the old adage has it, that’s something you can’t teach.

Ricky seems totally off Savage, but after a year of footy on the wing he might see value in giving his undoubted talent another shot. If he doesn’t, another club certainly would.

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This has always been the downfall at the Raiders. For every Jack Wighton and Matt Timoko, there is a Scott Sorensen and a Royce Hunt, guys who never got a look-in and have gone on to be top level options elsewhere.

Strange and Stewart look like they could be anything at this stage, and by the end of the year, we should be used to seeing both of them.

For Weekes and Savage, there is definitely value to be found, but the jury is very much out on whether that will be at Canberra.

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