A light shone through the darkness of Canberra’s 2018 season on Tuesday when Josh Hodgson’s return to the side was announced. Expectations of miracles haven’t been this high for about 2000 years. At his best Hodgson is one of the premier rakes in the competition and it is clear the Green Machine will be vastly better for his return. But he alone cannot solve their myriad of problems.
The trajectory of the 2018 season has left the Raiders scrambling for a solution to a litany of problems. Errors, problematic ‘game management’, and defensive issues that seem to change every week, have made for a frustrating year.
Surprisingly, the number 9 position has been one spot that the Raiders shouldn’t have had any problems this year. From his first game, Siliva Havili has shown effective service, strong defence and an excellent ability to identify the best moment to take a run around the ruck. The major impediment to his performance has been the perception of his match fitness. He’s ceded too much of his time to the array of halves that Coach Stuart confusingly thinks can fill his role.
Moving Havili to the bench will strengthen it markedly and offer more variety. Apart from easing Hodgson’s return to top-level football, Havili’s strong running game suggests he will provide useful minutes as a middle-forward. Having Havili come on at hooker will allow Hodgson to spend time wide of the ruck (though I would suggest waiting until the Englishmen has fully regained his lateral agility before shifting him into open space).
Hodgson’s creativity and connection with the forwards will be a boon to the Raiders attack. Havili was never quite able to connect with the props on movements like the double-prop decoys designed to confuse middle defenders close to the line. A good proportion of Hdogson’s 37 try assists for the Raiders have come from those simple movements close to the line. Though the Raiders haven’t had trouble finding metres in the middle for much of the season, Hodgson will reinforce this strength – his ability to play ‘eyes up’, deceiving the defensive line by feigning one direction and sending runners in the other will put forwards over the advantage line.
This will also offer help to the Raiders beleaguered halves. Much has been put on Aidan Sezer for the Raiders inability to perform in close games (even though the few successes the Raiders have had in such games in 2018 has often been driven almost exclusively by Sezer). Hodgson offers Sezer a partner in making smart choices, and a long and short kicking game that will relieve the pressure on the halfback as the sides’ sole effective kicker (something that Havili notably hasn’t been successful at). Hodgson won’t eliminate the errors in total – rarely is it Sezer dropping the ball or missing a tackle late in games. But he will provide direction and an ally, an extra pair of hands operating in support of smart game management*.
The extra creativity around the ruck may also open up the Raiders attack a bit more, allowing Sezer more freedom and less attention in attack. More threat to the middle also means more space for the wide men to move, and should give different opportunities to Jack Wighton and Blake Austin, both on the edge, and in support roles around the ruck.
With all this upside, it’s easy to get carried away and hope Hodgson is about to take the Raiders on their biennial finals run. But the expectations should be tempered early on at least. The anterior cruciate ligament is one that takes a long time to recover from, and robs players of their lateral movement. Hodgson’s match fitness will be in question, and Havili is likely to take a chunk of the minutes at dummy-half as Hodgson gets used to the pace and workload of the top grade. Hodgson can’t stop the Raiders from making errors late in the game, he can’t fix the whac-a-mole of defensive issues that change week-to-week. And he can’t stop late-set defensive penalties that have so often given impetus to the opposition.
But it’s a start. For the Raiders faithful the 2018 season has been a frustrating mix of incompetence and effort: the harder the Raiders have worked, the more they have strived, the worse things have got. Hodgson represents a rare day of sun cracking through the rain clouds. Brighter days are no doubt ahead, Hodgson’s return ensures that. Just don’t expect him to perform a miracle.
*More later this week on precisely what that is.