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The candidates fighting to fill Jack Wighton’s shoes in Canberra

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Jack Wighton, Ricky Stuart

After over a decade of service, Jack Wighton traded Canberra for South Sydney. His departure leaves a gaping hole in Ricky Stuart’s side, with two young stars fighting to replace him.

Outside of Jarrod Croker, has there been a better Canberra Raiders player this century than Jack Wighton? Probably not.

A versatile backline operator, early in his career Wighton was a very talented square peg constantly tasked with plugging round holes. Consistency of position and performance plagued him until he settled at five-eighth at the beginning of the 2019 season.

From that point on, Wighton never looked back. In 2019, a season he led Canberra to its first NRL Grand Final appearance in 25 years, where he would win the Clive Churchill medal in a losing side, he scored nine times. A year later, he was both the Dally M Medallist and Dally M Five-eighth of the Year.

There’s a lot about Jack Wighton Canberra will miss; his powerful, back-row-esque running, his crunching hits, and underrated kicking game — all the hallmarks of a destructively brilliant modern five-eighth.

Jack Wighton
Jack Wighton’s departure leaves a massive hole in the Canberra Raiders

More than that, they’ll miss his leadership and energy around the club and city. For so long it seemed he was destined to remain a part of the Raiders’ furniture. At times it was as if all of Canberra’s footballing hopes rested firmly atop his shoulders.

Everything good about Canberra rugby league flowed through Jack Wighton. Now, a new avenue of joy and success must be found with two clear standouts firming for his vacated five-eighth role.

Jack Wighton’s replacement candidates at the Canberra Raiders

Let’s run through the leading replacement candidates.

Jack Wighton, Kaeo Weekes, Ethan Strange
Kaeo Weekes (left) and Ethan Strange (right) are the two firm favourites to replace Wighton

Kaeo Weekes

The bookie’s favourite to fill Wighton’s vacated position is Kaeo Weekes. The 21-year-old featured 12 times for Manly before making the switch to the national capital to begin the 2024 season.

A talented junior footballer who’d been on Manly’s books from the age of 14, Weekes is incredibly versatile, most comfortable across the back line, particularly at fullback, but often deployed off the bench at hooker throughout the 2023 NRL season.

With the ball in his hands, Weekes is an incredibly exciting attacking talent for the future. His quick, light feet allow him to skip around defenders and burst into half-spaces, which in turn creates extra space for his outside men. At times, his swift movements appear effortless, as if there’s minimum exertion for maximum reward.

Despite a slight frame, standing at 182 centimetres, his ball-carrying ability is strong. Far from as strong as Jack Wighton’s, but who’s is?

There’s no doubt about his on-ball talents. Rarely any backline player makes it into the NRL without possessing soft hands, high footballing intelligence, and the kind of running game and physical traits Weekes has.

But attacking is only half a five-eighth’s responsibility. Defensively, there’s a cloud of doubt hanging over Weekes’ head, especially considering his relative inexperience defending on the edge of a front-line defence.

Granted, this should be taken with a grain of salt, but in his single outing at five-eighth in 2023, in a 44-12 Manly loss against the Penrith Panthers, Weekes missed three tackles and as his edge was hunted by a dominant Penrith right edge.

Of course, the Panthers make even the most outstanding NRL edge defenders look amateur. They are, after all, the greatest club side in NRL history, having won every competition from 2021 to 2023. Weekes was also a victim of a poor defensive showing from Manly’s left back rower on the night, Kelma Tuilagi.

That being said, these are defensive issues that cannot be ignored, especially for a coach like Ricky Stuart, who values his side’s grit and determination above all else. Offensively, Weekes has the talent to be a strong NRL five-eighth, but his size and defence are, at this stage of his career and for a coach like Ricky, a concern.

Ethan Strange

Should Canberra and Ricky Stuart opt for an alternative five-eighth option to Kaeo Weekes, need they look no further than one of the game’s brightest prospects, who’s been in their system for years, Ethan Strange.

According to the NRL website, Ethan Strange is 190 centimetres and 99 kilograms. Jack Wighton? 190 centimetres and 96 kilograms. As far as carbon-copied physical profiles go, they don’t get closer than Strange and Wighton.

Similar to Wighton, strange has also served an apprenticeship in the outside backs throughout his junior footy career, featuring in centre and on the wing a handful of times during the Raiders’ 2023 NSW Cup season.

However, from round 21 onward, Strange did not feature outside of five-eighth. Coincidence? Potentially. Preparing him for first-grade life? More than likely.

In his 11 games at five-eighth, including four earlier in the season, Strange scored once, provided six tries for teammates, and broke 48 tackles. At under-19 State of Origin level, the young star also crossed three times in the 2023 clash.

He’s very clearly a talented attacking footballer with large upside potential. Yet, like Weekes, his defence isn’t the strongest. His tackle efficiency across 16 NSW Cup games in 2023 was a tick above 85%. In the NRL, against bigger, tougher, stronger opponents, it’s hard to imagine those numbers travelling anywhere but down.

In both Strange and Weekes’, defence, the man they’re replacing is far from rugby league’s strongest defender. In fact, in 2023 Wighton’s tackle efficiency hovered at the 85% mark. Yet, his larger frame probably overshadowed some of these flaws; this may play into Strange’s favour given his similar size.

Whether they roll with Strange or Weekes come round one of the NRL season, Canberra are in a talent deficit. Replacing Wighton is as easy as replacing the sun. Ricky Stuart and the Canberra faithful shouldn’t be deterred by likely slow starts from whoever they run with.

Both Strange and Weekes are extremely talented footballers in their own right. Add to the mix their versatility, Strange can play centre and may find himself as Jarrod Croker’s replacement while Weekes is a capable fullback and versatile option from the bench, and both kids offer incredible value to a Canberra side in transition.

Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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