The long awaited (by hard core Raiders fans) first grade debut of Jeremy Hawkins will sadly not come this season after the NRL ruled Hawkins out on the basis of the 2nd tier salary cap.
Whilst it is disappointing for Hawkins, Raiders fans should not be so quick to blame the hated 2nd tier cap and should instead look a little closer to home. The reality is that the Raiders coaching staff and management did a truly terrible job of assembling their first tier of players.
At the start of the season each club is required to submit a list of their top 25 players to make up their first grade squad. The 2nd tier salary cap then restricts the club to a selecting a maximum of five players from outside that squad to play first grade.
The reason that the Raiders cannot select Hawkins (or any of their other talented youngsters such as Jack Ahearn, Tevita Pangai, Patrick Mago or Luke Bateman) is that the Raiders have already used up their allotment in selecting Shannon Boyd, Matthew Allwood, Kyle O’Donnell, Brenko Lee and Kurt Baptiste.
Let’s be clear that this is in no way an injury ravaged team. Certainly the loss of Edrick ‘MC Hammer’ Lee to a long term injury hurt but overall the Raiders have actually had a reasonable run with injuries this year. The club has used only 25 total players this season compared to 30 in 2013 (and it would have been 31 if not for a similar 2nd tier cap problem regarding Mitch Cornish).
Here’s the real problem: the Raiders top 25 is really, really bad.
For starters it includes six players – Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Matt Mcilwrick, Sam Mataora, Jake Foster, Mark Nicholls and Lagi Setu – who have combined for a grand total of three first grade appearances. When you’re getting essentially zero contribution from over 20% of your squad you’re going to have a problem.
Meanwhile at the other end of the scale it is unclear why Shannon Boyd and Matt Allwood were not among the top 25. Both began the year as starters and Boyd has played every game that he has been fit for. Kyle O’Donnell also has been regularly preferred to alleged top 25 props Learoyd-Lahrs and Mataora.
Then of course we should note that Matt Allwood, Reece Robinson and Bill Tupou are all fit and available and could play either right wing or right centre this week except for the fact that it turns out that none of them are very good. One of those players will now be forced to come in to replace Hawkins but it will be a matter of choosing what combination of awful defence and terrible ball handling Ricky is most comfortable with.
Want another indicator of how poor the Raiders top 25 is? The club had six of the 34 players that appeared in the ‘residents’ origin game on Wednesday night and probably would have had seven if Sami Sauiluma hadn’t gotten injured. To be fair three of those players were not Raiders top 25 players but even so for a single club to produce so many reserve grade ‘stars’ suggests that something is awry.
However the Raiders top 25 is not just poorly constructed in terms of quality players it also seems poorly balanced. For starters the squad is low on outside backs. Bearing in mind that Jack Wighton was initially ear-marked to play in the halves this season the Raiders top 25 includes only six specialist outside backs. – Croker, Lee, Milford, Robinson, Sauilma and Tupou – to cover the five outside back positions. And none of those players was a specialist right centre so that spot was always going to be makeshift.
The squad is, however, overloaded with props and especially with backrowers. There are five specialist props in the squad not including Paul Vaughan and Mark Nicholls who can both play in the middle or on the edge. Two of those props, Learoyd-Lahrs and Mataora, are among the unsighted this season.
Meanwhile in the back row if one includes Vaughan and Nicholls there are eight players for three starting spots and one bench spot although Stuart has regularly selected three pops and a utility on his bench.
In short: this is not a well assembled squad.
The selection of Jeremy Hawkins was supposed to be another key step in the Raiders plans to rebuild their squad with debuts for Jack Ahearn and possibly Tevita Pangai and Patrick Mago to follow. Now the club will need to wait until preseason and the 2015 trials to decide who pulls on the lime green jersey next year.
Over recent seasons the Raiders have been unlucky with injuries and faced personnel challenges like few other teams. But whatever you do don’t blame the NRL or the 2nd tier cap for this latest setback. This one is entirely down to the club’s own poor decision making.
Read Lachlan’s work regularly on the Roar and follow him on twitter @mrsports83