Hands up if you thought at the start of 2014 that Blake Austin would be a sought after recruit and that a club’s fans would celebrate upon signing him? Anyone with their hand up needs to be called in for questioning, because you’re telling fibs.
Austin began the year not only behind Braith Anasta for the five-eighth job at Wests Tigers but potentially behind future stars Mitchell Moses and Curtis Sironen with little prospect of playing regular first grade football.
However as the year went on opportunities presented themselves and Austin took them with both hands. Unsurprisingly other clubs took notice of his stirring performances across a number of positions and after some wrangling with respect to his existing contract Austin is now a Canberra Raiders and Raiders fans are delighted.
Why wouldn’t Raiders fans be excited? Austin looks like an excellent signing both on and off the field and adds to a growing number of quality recruits under coach Ricky Stuart.
From all reports a key motive for Austin to move to Canberra was a chance to play five-eighth and he should certainly get an opportunity to do so with the Green Machine.
In 2014 Austin appeared at five-eighth on seven occasions for the Tigers, with five of those being paired with Luke Brooks. Effectively this meant that Austin’s role was that of secondary playmaker to Brooks.
Austin was asked to run the ball effectively, provide a kicking option should Brooks be swamped and provide rugged defence on the right edge. In many ways his role was similar to that of Kieran Foran at the Sea Eagles and John Sutton at the Rabbitohs before he was moved to the forward pack
It is highly likely that he will be asked to fill a similar role in Canberra with either Mitch Cornish or the returning Sam Williams likely to take on primary playmaking from the left edge.
So how do Austin’s stats measure up? Firstly as a ball runner. In his seven games at five-eighth in 2014 Austin averaged nearly 6 runs per game for an average gain of nearly 80m (the numbers are skewed a little high by his Round 25 scorching of new club Canberra). Solid stats for a running half, especially when you consider that he was touching the ball far less than Brooks.
In games in which both appeared Austin averaged 34 touches per game with a maximum of 37 whereas Brooks averaged 44 touches with a minimum of 37. Austin can expect a similar disparity of opportunities in Canberra but will be expected to look to run just as frequently.
When he does run the ball Austin does so strongly, showing a strong propensity to break tackles. He recorded nearly 5 tackle busts per game when playing as a half (again figures are a little inflated by the Round 25 game in Canberra) an excellent record.
With respect to his kicking game the statistics demonstrate that Austin is well and truly comfortable as both an option kicker but also as the main man, taking on primary kicking duties when paired with less experienced halves Curtis Sironen in Round 21 and Mitchell Moses in Round 25.
When paired with Brooks meanwhile Austin effectively split the kicking duties with Brooks making more kicks in two of the five games and recording 23 total kicks to Brooks’ 31.
With respect to defence the simplest measure is tackles made and tackles missed and here there may be a few question marks with Austin averaging 15 tackles whilst missing nearly three and half per game in the halves.
However a strict missed tackle count doesn’t always tell the full story and Austin will have the advantage of being stationed next to Josh Papalli in 2015 who not only seems to take great pleasure inflicting pain on opposition ball runners but also reads the play very well.
So on paper Austin seems well suited to the role of complementary half and should work well alongside either Williams or Cornish regardless of who is preferred.
Austin also fits perfectly with the culture that the club is building off the field. Still only 23 years old and with a young family Austin will join a burgeoning group of young dads at the club. Josh Papalli recently became a dad and Jack Wighton and Mitch Cornish will be joining him soon.
Morevoer after an era marked by ‘me first’ troublemakers who shall not be named, the club is building a culture built on being family friendly and relying on hard working, team first players.
The club is likely to be captained in 2015 by either one or both of Jarrod Croker and Shaun Fensom, both solid-as-a-rock small town boys. Those leaders typify the types of players that are being recruited and retained at the club and Austin fits that mold perfectly.
Canberra will always struggle to compete with a certain type of lifestyle that Sydney clubs can offer but what it can offer is a family friendly atmosphere. A club built on young dads and country boys may not appeal to every young player but it will draw some players such as Austin, and just as importantly it’s a culture that fans will be proud of.
Cynics will no doubt argue that what has really drawn Austin is a larger pay packet and no doubt that played a role. But there aren’t any players in the NRL playing for free and no premierships are won with local juniors alone.
One final implication of the Austin signing is that it essentially confirms what we already knew. That Terry Campese is dead, buried and forgotten for the Raiders hierarchy. With Austin and fellow halves recruit Sam Williams joining the club there can be little doubt that the club does not have Campese in their plans for 2015. Here’s hoping Campese can find a second life for himself in the Super League.
Blake Austin is a perfect fit for Canberra both on the field and off the field. On the field he brings a set of skills that will complement the core group of talented players at the club already. Off the field he will bring a hard-working attitude that has taken him from the nearly discarded bin back to a lucrative contract.
With Super league recruits Josh Hodgson and Sia Soliola making the England Four nations squad and staring in the Grand Final respectively and quality players like Austin making the choice to join the club things are looking up in Canberra after a miserable year.
Read Lachlan’s work regularly on League Freak and the Roar and follow him on twitter @mrsports83