19 April 2024

There’s a lot to like about the Raiders youth brigade

| Tim Gavel
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Joe Tapine leads the Raiders team onto GIO Stadium to take on the Gold Coast Titans in Round 6. Photo: Jaye Grieshaber.

Joe Tapine leads the Raiders team onto GIO Stadium to take on the Gold Coast Titans in Round 6. Photo: Jayzie Photography.

Laurie Daley was just 17 years old when he made his first-grade debut for the Raiders in 1987. By the end of the season, he was on the bench for the club’s inaugural grand final appearance.

Two years later as a 19-year-old, Laurie was a key member of the Raiders’ grand final victory over the Tigers.

Another 19-year-old, Bradley Clyde, who made his NSWRL debut at 18 the previous year, was also in that side.

The halfback in 1989 was a young rugby union convert, Ricky Stuart, who made his first-grade debut as a 21-year-old the season before, along with Clyde.

These three players and Mal Meninga were the only players remaining from 1989 in the 1994 premiership team that defeated the Bulldogs in the decider.

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Over the years, exceptional players have made their first-grade debuts as teenagers for the Raiders, including Todd Payten and Todd Carney, who made their debuts at 17, while Jason Croker was 18.

At times, there has been a reluctance to throw young players into the physicality of first grade, but history has shown that the blooding of youth can reap an enormous windfall in the long term.

Ricky Stuart, who, along with Daley and Clyde, went through that three-premiership era, offers unique insight into managing the next generation of youth.

Ethan Strange is coming into his own as a 19-year-old, having debuted in first grade at that age. Fullback Chevy Stewart at 18 is another key component in the long-term policy.

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After fielding one of the oldest rosters in the competition last season, the Raiders are now looking one of the most youthful, with 21-year-old winger Xavier Savage, Trey Mooney at 21, 23-year-old Morgan Smithies, and two 24-year-old centres, Matt Timoko and Sebastian Kris.

Mind you, the players leading the way at the moment are 31-year-old Josh Papali’i, 34-year-old Jordan Rapana, and 29-year-old Joe Tapine.

But it’s obvious that an evolution policy is underway rather than a rebuild. The latter has the potential to send a club into years of oblivion.

Ethan Strange played a significant role in the extra time win by the Raiders over the Titans in Round 6. Photo: Jaye Grieshaber.

Ethan Strange played a significant role in the extra time win by the Raiders over the Titans in Round 6. Photo: Jayzie Photography.

It has the appearance of a carefully crafted plan, but it is more likely to be determined by the response of players who are introduced into first grade at a young age.

The plan can go sour if players are shell-shocked by the pace and physicality of first-grade football in potentially the toughest football competition in the world.

The Raiders’ performance has been well beyond expectations, and the future looks promising.

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So far, I reckon they’re showing 50/50 signs of being the same or different to teams in the recent past.

In the past, they were weird in that 1. they could beat or lose to anyone, and you had to wait for game day to see what’d happen; 2. they always had some impossible quirk like consistently being unable to score points in the second half, blowing big leads, winning by only two points, or not being able to score points after massive amounts of possession, and we’ve seen signs of that against the Sharks and the Titans.

On the other hand, they were very different in other games against Parra and whoever else, where they won well and had good attacking and disciplined footy.

As such, I’m still in the same boat as I have been for about the last 10 years, i.e. , I don’t know where I stand with the Raiders. Are they a good team or only ordinary? The uncertainty makes it hard to manage expectations, unlike sides in the past that were easier to understand.

Here’s hoping, of course, they become a different and better team.

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