They ran through the streets, calling out “Hodgson, Hodgson’s back!” Raiders fans have been awaiting this moment ever since that fateful world cup match late last year, when Hodgson’s ACL gave way and essentially derailed the first half of the Raiders 2018 campaign.
Other injuries have hit since then, along with the odd suspension, but with all due respect to Jordan Rapana this is the strongest side the Raiders have fielded thus far.
Hodgson’s return means Havili drops to the bench, where one expects he should excel as a late half spark utility. His running from dummy half is great, and he has a stronger frame than Hodgson for effecting hitups and breaks. Havili’s move in turn means Hingano can go back to learning his trade in NSWcup, a relieving turn for him, the fans and the team. Rapana’s absence means Michael Oldfield, who excelled in his appearance earlier this season, will have the honour of covering the right edge along with BJ Leilua, who has passed his HIA protocols after his headknock against the Panthers.
The other welcome return is Joe Tapine, who has concluded his ban for a shoulder charge. His energy in attack and defence will be most welcome for the Raiders, and it means that for possibly the first time this season the Raiders will have a genuine rotation (Juniour Paulo not withstanding).
The Tigers sit directly above the Raiders on 14 points with a net differential of +1 (The Raiders are exactly 0), which means they’ll be keen to stave off a loss and the subsequent plunge. They’ve slowed after their breakneck start to the season and need to get back to winning to regain a foothold in the eight.
This is probably the best Raiders starting pack of 2018 (if you ignore Whitehead’s very average form over the last few rounds). Soliola and Boyd are the props, bookended by Tapine and Whitehead on either side, with Papalii once again serving as the lock forward in the middle. One would expect that this combination should be able to make good inroads against other packs, but they’ll have to win the battle against the likes of Packer, Matulino and Lawrence early on. The Tigers forward pack were highly effective early in the season and are not to be underestimated.
A Mighty Fine Spine
Sezer and Austin were essentially given one main task in 2018 – hold down the fort while Hodgson recuperated. A fair assessment is that they couldn’t manage this, due in part to poor list management by Stuart and the colossal pressure of remembering what to do without one of the top three rakes in the team.
I feel as though Sezer will likely make gains in his playing form as Hodgson returns to dominance, but I can’t say the same for Austin, who has simply never matched his abilities of 2016. It remains to be seen whether or not young Hingano might return to the side wearing a #6 rather than a #14.
The Tigers have possibly a more stable combination in Reynolds and Brooks, and I get the feeling that without Hodgson back in the side the Raiders halves would find themselves in a spot of trouble.
As for the man himself, well it’s still early days for Hodgo – expect Sticky to manage his game time conservatively for the next few rounds, with Havili to cover much of the slack ( this is not a bad thing if the Raiders are able to adapt to the change in service around the 25 minute mark of each half)
You Can Do It (Put Your Backs Into It)
Round 14 was a low point for the Raiders backline, with both BJ and Jordy in the sheds before full time. With Rapana facing eight weeks of Xbox and Netflix the Raiders have turned to Michael Oldfield to take up station out on the right wing. Expect the back five to be ready to run riot after a very quiet outing against the Panthers.
The Tigers have the likes of Thompson, Marsters, MWZ, Fonua and Naiqama snooping around looking for any sign of a gap in the line, so the Raiders will need to be watchful on the fringes in particular.
Off The Pine
Havili – The best #14 choice the Raiders have.
Lui – Improving throughout the season, and is now good for some very effective carries once the starting props come off.
Bateman – Has weirdly become the Raiders veteran bench player. Is doing much better at making effective hit-ups that earn decent post contact metres.
Knight – Is doing well, apart from the odd brain snap penalty.
The Tigers will have the services of Chee-Kam, Gamble, Sue and Mcqueen.
Where It Can Be Won
Things just got a lot brighter for the Green Machine. Hodgson’s return comes with the caveat that patience is a must, both during the 80 minutes and for the remainder of the season. If the Raiders wish to make a finals appearance they need to learn how to play smart footy that doesn’t require them to close out games in the dying minutes.
Raiders by 12!