When Ricky Stuart and his coaching staff started thinking about the 2022 season, there’s a fair chance they wouldn’t – couldn’t – have predicted the months that followed.
Unvaccinated players, speculation around Josh Hodgson, Tom Starling involved in an alleged incident on the Central Coast, Jordan Rapana pleading guilty to drink driving and now there’s talk about Jack Wighton’s future beyond next season … all this has happened before pre-season training and the season itself is close to four months away.
The Raiders also have two unnamed players in their squad yet to be vaccinated for COVID-19. There has been speculation about who the players are, but this speculation is based on perceptions drawn from previous reluctance by some players to be vaccinated for the flu last year.
If the two players start the season next year without getting vaccinated, they face significant restrictions and financial penalties. This is due to bans on non-vaccinated players participating in games in Victoria and Queensland.
Under the pre-season rules, the two players must undergo two COVID tests a week and return a negative result to train alongside their teammates.
Once the season starts, there’s the possibility of further restrictions and the players will be docked pay for every game they are unable to play if they refuse to have a COVID vaccination.
With the Raiders playing five games in Queensland and one in Victoria next season, coupled with representative matches, the loss of income could be the tipping point to convince the players concerned to become vaccinated. The Raiders have already stated they won’t be sacking players who refuse to be vaccinated.
To add to the Raiders’ pre-season, there is speculation about hooker Josh Hodgson, who has a year to run on his contract.
He has started pre-season training with the club, but talks have taken place between the Raiders and the Wests-Tigers, which could see Hodgson head to the Wests-Tigers for the 2022 season as part of a two-year deal.
The proviso is, of course, the Raiders pay a proportion of his salary even though he is playing for another team.
At this stage, the two clubs haven’t agreed on the salary to be paid by the Raiders and Hodgson could turn out for Canberra next season after all.
Adding to the uncertainty is an upcoming court appearance by Hodgson’s heir apparent for the Raiders hooking role, Tom Starling.
Starling will appear in Gosford Local Court on 11 January following an alleged alcohol-related incident in October on the Central Coast.
Then there’s winger Jordan Rapana. He pleaded guilty to drink driving after being caught on 27 September on the Sunshine Coast.
Finally, out of nowhere, there’s speculation about the future of Raiders five-eighth Jack Wighton. This is despite Wighton being contracted to the club for the next three years, including an option in his favour for the 2023 and 2024 seasons. You have to wonder about the motives of leaking a story speculating about a player’s future when the player is under contract.
Given the issues faced by Wighton over the years, and the Raiders support of him, sensibly, we’d expect him to concentrate on playing football in Canberra for the next three seasons.
It has to be said, you can throw plenty at rugby league, but the code doesn’t miss a beat. It’s almost as if the off-field drama is an extension of the theatre of the sport.