Jack Wighton wins awards but can he win a comp?

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When you’ve got both a Clive Churchill and Dally M Medal in your pool room, it’s difficult for anyone to argue that you’re not one of the best players in the game.

But in 2021, Jack Wighton – who had secured the game’s two highest individual honours in the previous two seasons – led the Canberra Raiders to an inauspicious tenth-place finish, following up his 26-point 2020 Dally M winning season with few enough points in 2021 that he didn’t feature on the end-of-season list that stopped at Jason Taumalolo on six.

It was the kind of year that not only suggests you’re not a great player, it can end a career.

But that’s not how Ricky Stuart works. The most volatile coach in the National Rugby League is also the most loyal, saying it was everyone else’s fault Wighton was having a low-key 2021.

“We’ve been very inconsistent all season and it makes it very hard for Jack,” Stuart said last August.

“We’re all very happy to put Jack on our shoulders when he’s taking the game on and winning the game, it’s now our turn to load up for Jack to play well and to help him.

“We’ve got to go out there and play well for him now and just let him fall into our show of good form.”

Ricky Stuart

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

While Stuart’s words received a mixed response, they weren’t unreasonable.

Wighton is a confidence player. When the rest of his team are on and giving him the time and space he needs, he can tear an opposition apart.

The other way to see it is that Wighton is the Green Machine’s main man and when things aren’t going according to plan, the incumbent award holder as best player in the entire comp really should step up and ensure that his team is at least in the contest.

Look, maybe it was just the bad year Wighton was arguably due to have.

I’m never going to be as torn up about it as my brilliant colleague Tim Gore, but Wighton’s 2019 Clive Churchill medal should have been on the back of he and his team also winning the grand final. The Raiders were definitely better on the night, it’s just that the Roosters – as an entire club, right down to the trainers – knew when to turn it on.

Wighton was massive in their efforts to get there, then was the best player on the park the day that mattered most.

The almost-was 2019 at Bruce Stadium was followed with a fifth-place finish in 2020 – the year Wighton won the game’s award for best, most consistent individual player – and we wondered how close the men from the nation’s capital were to a drought-busting grand final win.

But in 2021 the Raiders had a bad year and, as a result, so did Jack. Or maybe it was because of Jack.

Anyway, bad years tend to go one of two ways: either it’s written off as 12 building months that everyone learns from and makes the club better for the experience, or it’s the beginning of the end for said club’s premiership window.

For the Green Machine?

Well, Sia Soliola, Dunamis Lui, Ryan James, Siliva Havili and Curtis Scott are all known quantities who won’t be there this year, while there remains uncertainty over the long-term health of club captain Jarrod Croker.

Raiders

Jarrod Crocker (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

And, of course, there’s the ongoing Pommy hostility, with Wighton’s halves partner, George Williams, getting his marching orders halfway through last year and the fella who started the Raiders’ Red Rose revolution, Josh Hodgson, now off to the Eels in 2023 and possibly keen for a cameo somewhere else for the upcoming season.

There are a lot of question marks, is the takeaway. And teams with question marks over them don’t tend to win premierships.

The Raiders’ 2019 effort was one for the romantics. Because it was a team that probably had no business being there on the last day of the season, but September footy is a different comp and if you’re ready to go at that point, you can write a story that makes the tragics weep.

And the tears flowed, but for all the wrong reasons, as Travis Touma became even more discussed than the bloke who wore the Little Master’s medal at the end of the night.

Jack Wighton

Jack Wighton of the Raiders (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

A fifth-place finish the following year, then tenth in 2021 suggests that rather than the start of a dynasty, ‘19 was the Raiders’ unexpected shot and unfortunate zenith.

If it was – is – going to be more than an unfulfilled fairy tale, if the Green Machine are going to beat the winning machines that come out of Melbourne, Bondi and, now, Penrith, they need someone to step up and be next-level awesome.

And they’ve got that guy. His name is Jack Wighton.

So, Jack. Whatcha gonna do about it?

Million Dollar Man series
A look at each club’s million-dollar man – the player broadly acknowledged to be taking up the largest individual chunk of the salary cap (even if they aren’t actually quite grossing seven figures).
» Can Tevita Pangai Jr finally put it all together at the Bulldogs?
» An off year or the beginning of the end for Jason Taumalolo?
» Scorned by Souths, it’s Reynolds to the rescue in Brisbane
» How much blame does Luke Brooks deserve for the Wests Tigers’ finals drought?
» Addin Fonua-Blake took the green but can he stop seeing red?
» Ben Hunt and how a single moment can define an entire career

Best-case scenario
This is the first club of this series where I can actually say this with any sense of legitimacy, even if it’s not likely.

The best-case scenario for the Canberra Raiders is winning the comp.

They’ve got the level of depth in both forwards and backs that mean dudes like Corey Horsburgh and Harley Smith-Shields played fewer than a dozen games last season, and their coach is in the minority of active coaches to have actually own a premiership (I have a whole thing about how Ricky Stuart is just an angrier version of Michael Hagan and therefore made a longer career of it, but whatever, Stuart’s still got a driver’s seat).

When you’ve got those ingredients, the only other thing you need is one transcendental talent in the halves and another guy who can put the ball into touch when it’s necessary and make his tackles.

Raiders fans, you’ve got everything there. It’s ready to go.

Top four ain’t as good as it gets. Winning the comp is.

And if Canberra finally put things right after the heartache of 2019, it will almost certainly be on the back of another exceptional season from Jack Wighton.

Worst-case scenario
If it’s all there, why the hell were Canberra such a shambles last year?

Losing fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was obviously a blow but between Williams’ departure, Hodgson’s dissatisfaction and Joe Tapine’s wife, Kirsten, blasting Stuart on Instagram, it sure does seem like – to the outside observer – managing people is a weakness at the organisation.

Wighton is a guy who needs more of a cuddle than a kick and Ricky cuddled him through last year. But if the Raiders are struggling by June this year, I just can’t see Stuart continuing to back his highest-paid player at the expense of the rest of his team.

And if the Raiders are struggling by June this year, I also can’t see it being despite Wighton playing great footy and the rest of the team letting him down.

A failure to make the eight would constitute a bad year in the ACT but – in much the same way as a grand final is the best-case scenario (even if it’s not overly likely) – the worst-case scenario is the wooden spoon.

Stranger things have happened at a club where crucial people aren’t settled.

If that’s the case, you’d also have to wonder whether Jack Wighton will see out his career at the Green Machine or enact the option in his favour to make a move to even greener pastures ahead of the 2023 season.

Of course, if he has another stinker, what club would offer him the reported $800,000 Canberra are committed to paying him for each of seasons ’23 and ’24?

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