Jack Wighton Is Actually Good

Growing up a Raiders fan it never ceased to amaze me how few Rugby League commentators actually watched them play. I mean, when someone pays you hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to be an expert on a competition, wouldn’t watching that competition actually be something you do?

There would always be dead give-aways. Listening to players last names get butchered was always one. Another favourite was during the Elliot era when commentators would still consider the Raiders ‘entertainers’ even though their ‘success’ in that period being based on a very simple game plan – one-out attack, and tough defence.

Another was when they would have no idea who was good. When the Raiders would get a free-to-air game, commentators often had an overinflated view of Josh McCrone. I always suspected this was because he would always be in the highlights package of every Raiders’ game throwing a great face-ball to a rampaging second rower for a try.

josh-mccrone.jpg
For the record I always loved Josh McCrone. He was me but IRL

Now, if you watched Josh play you knew he literally threw that ball every time he ran to the line. Sometimes it would be so late or so off its target it would falcon off the second-rower as he was smashed by the oncoming defence. But every now and then it would work, look very pretty, and end up on the highlights package. So it was natural for people who only paid attention to highlights package to lose their perspective on McCrone’s talents.

out the window
Goodbye perspective

As if to prove the mainstream media aren’t the only people capable of not watching the Raiders, 5thtackle.com yesterday put out a piece ranking the NRL fullbacks 16 to 1. Interestingly jack Wighton came in at 13th best in the competition, just above a guy who is barely a first grader (Bevan French). Not only does this put him behind the elite fullbacks like Billy Slater, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Valentine Holmes and Kalyn Ponga, it puts him well below more average fullbacks like Moses Mbye and Will Hopoate.

In short, 5thtackle.com thinks Jack Wighton is shit.

Their specific argument was he’s probably a centre. This is a myth that people have perpetuated for quite some time about Wighton on the basis he was quite good there in 2014. It’s also a hint that people haven’t watched him since then.

wighton sit.jpg
This guy is not very good according to 5thtackle.com

In the meantime Wighton has matured into an exceptional fullback, giving you everything you want from a modern custodian: ball-play, line breaks, safety under the high ball, kick returns and defence. Given his salary, and his value as a ball-player, fullback is a much better position for him than centre.

The article noted his ball play had improved. This is true. Wighton has become Canberra’s most reliable ball-player outside of Josh Hodgson. It’s been so effective that the Raiders essentially made him a part time five-eighth, giving him a half of the field to himself and limiting nominal six Blake Austin to right-side forays. The pass short/long/run decision faced at second receiver has become second nature to him.

In 2018 Wighton had 8 try assists and 9 line break assists. You can see in the list below how that compares to the elite fullbacks in the competition (and Mybe and Hopoate). In raw numbers that puts Wighton just below the best in the game. But when considered on a per game basis, Wighton isn’t an improved ball player. He’s goddam elite.

wightonj-1741553
Wighton is an elite ballplayer

Try assists and line breaks aggregate (and per game) – selected fullbacks

  • Wighton 8 try assists (0.61 per game) and 9 line break assists (0.7 per game)
  • Tedesco 13 (0.56) and 11 (0.7)
  • Slater 12 (0.66) and 7 (0.4)
  • Johnston 11 (0.5) and 14 (0.6)
  • Holmes 9 (0.36) and 7 (0.3)
  • Tuivasa-Sheck 8 (0.34) and 9 (0.4)
  • Mbye 5 (0.2) and 6 (0.3)
  • Hopoate 7 (0.2) and 11 (0.5)

Wighton’s running ability is usually seen as his strength. He is a brutal runner, and some may argue it’s the threat of this that creates the space outside him that others profit from. While not as elite on this metric, it still places him in line with players such as Mbye and Hopoate who do more work as support runners than Wighton.

Line breaks and tackle busts aggregate (and per game) – selected fullbacks

  • Wighton 3 (0.2 per game) and 44 (3.4 per game)
  • Tedesco 15 (0.7 ) and 155 (6.7)
  • Slater 8 (0.4) and 64 (3.6)
  • Johnston 14 (0.6) and 42 (1.9)
  • Holmes 26 (1.0) and 83 (3.3)
  • Tuivasa-Sheck 13 (0.6) and 112 (4.9)
  • Mbye 9 (0.4) and 88 (3.8)
  • Hopoate 6 (0.3) and 84 (3.5)

This is the area that – statistically at least – separates Wighton from the elite. Possibly because he has such a big role creating line breaks for others, he gets little opportunity to make them himself.

That’s not the only work that Wighton gets through. Wighton is excellent in yardage work coming off his own line, part of the unstoppable 3-headed monster with Nic Cotric and Jordan Rapana, who form the beginning of the best Raiders’ sets. This is reflected in the average running metres he makes every game.

Average running metres per game – selected fullbacks

  • Wighton 138.2
  • Tedesco 187.9
  • Slater 116.9
  • Johnston 94.0
  • Holmes 153.7
  • Tuivasa-Sheck 178.4
  • Mbye 121.1
  • Hopoate 161.3

So yet again Wighton, while not on the level of metres that a Tedesco or a Tuivasa-Sheck makes, it still better than average in his metres made.

We see similar results in kick returns, with Wighton comfortably competititve with the best fullbacks in the competition.

Kick return (average)

  • Wighton (9m)
  • Tedesco (10m)
  • Slater (10m)
  • Johnston (9m)
  • Holmes (13m)
  • Tuivasa-Sheck (11m)
  • Mbye (9m)
  • Hopoate (8m)

Wighton has generally been an excellent in the line defender. In fact, it’s this strength that has driven the push to move him up front, either at centre or five-eighth. Like most fullbacks he plays a critical role as a gap-filler, covering the defensive errors of his colleagues (of which there are plenty). And in the past he has lit some people up, just ask Jake Granville.

This season his defensive efficiency was uncharacteristically low (just under 70 per cent, or less than Sam Williams *tugs collar*). This places him comfortably below most other fullbacks. However, this is so substantially different to his 2015-17 average of 80 percent that it seems more likely a outlier.

Often too, he finds himself in poor position on attacking kicks. This is routinely borne from tending to failures on one side of the field but on occasion he’s been found wanting by good kick positioning. It happens to most fullbacks occasionally, but it’s an area of his game that Wighton needs to work on.

A criticism often laid at Wighton’s feet is that he has an error in his game. Again we find that in 2018 he was as good as the best in the game in this matter.

Errors total (per game) – selected fullbacks

  • Wighton 9 (0.7)
  • Tedesco 32 (1.4)
  • Slater 21 (1.2)
  • Johnston 15 (0.7 )
  • Holmes 24 (1.0)
  • Tuivasa-Sheck 14 (0.6)
  • Mbye 19 (0.8)
  • Hopoate 18 (0.8)

Wighton was prone to error in the past. But over the last half of 2017, and 2018 that dissipated from his game rapidly. It seems this ‘myth’ of Wighton being error-prone is no longer real.

Regardless, Wighton’s performance this year proves he is worth more than a cursory mention, and should be in the conversation with the best custodians in the competition. We wouldn’t put him on the level of Teddy, Tuivasa-Sheck and Slater. But it’s clear he’s better than average, and at just 25 his best football is ahead of him (legal issues pending). To suggest he’s among the also-rans of the competition is foolish. It’s another example of a tendency of a Rugby League media, both professional and otherwise, that only pays attention to certain clubs when convenient.

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