When Josh Hodgson plays for the Canberra Raiders he’s a master of the game. He’s the centre of the Raiders’ attacking solar system, a burning hot supernova that travels up the middle third of the field with options orbiting around him (in this scenario Josh Papalii is Jupiter, and Elliot Whitehead is Uranus because, you know, Smelly). He takes metres when he wants, he sets up forwards with passes back across the ruck, and he toys with defending markers like a small child re-routing ants.
When Josh Hodgson plays for England though he could be almost anyone. He plays simply, providing quick and early service to the halves or the forwards, allowing them to be the people that decide where the game goes. He barely darts out of nine, and he certainly doesn’t do so with a running forward hanging off his shoulder ready to tear a hole in the opposition. Close to the line he’s rarely running anything of consequence with decoy forwards or fancy interplay like a run-around. James Graham plays a more influential role on the success of the attack than Hodgson does.
This has lead to many fans of English/British rugby league to question his place in the side. It’s hard to believe as a Raiders’ fan, but there are people out there who genuinely think the British league team would be better off without arguably the best hooker in the world. I guess beggars can be choosers after all.
Most of the blame for Hodgson’s ineffectiveness comes from the puerile mixture of Wayne Bennett’s growing desire for insipid and outdated modes of football. Bennett hasn’t rolled out an innovative attack since the early 2000s, so there’s little to suggest he’s about to change now. His recent success have all been built on turning good defences into spectacular ones (see Broncos 2015, Dragons 2010) and relying on talented players to find the points necessary. Given a shorter time frame to operate with the English players, he simply doesn’t have the time to influence the defence to the extent a week-to-week NRL experience allows. The resulting defence can’t make up for the poor direction of the offence.
In the representative environment he doesn’t so much need to improve the offensive talent, but he does need to throw the keys to right players. In this side, Hodgson’s obsequious shuffling of the ball suggests he’s sitting in the back seat, watching Gareth Widdop and James Graham (for some reason) with their hands on the wheel. He never holds the ball and rarely takes a step out from behind the ruck. His only real attempt to ball-play comes from his ability to hit the edge (often Bateman) with twenty metre lasers. Those are often the only interesting attack the Lions have offered, but it seems to be something they’ve not used enough. Instead they’ve focused on simple shuffles masquerading as the sweeping movements we are more used to in the NRL. The result has not been pretty. Three tries in four games is not worthy of the talent on the field.
The outcome is insipid because instead of focusing on drawing defensive attention around the ruck, it instead makes pushes these decisions to the first receiver. Like a mid-2000s team, the halves touches the ball repeatedly in sets, even if it is only to faciliate a forward taking a hit-up. When sweeping movements begin, the first receiver is often another forward, who exists only to shuffle the ball along the line. Instead of ball players taking the line on with multiple options on either side of them, the British side shuffles sideline to sideline like they’re a poor designed version of the North Queensland Cowboys, another side stuck in an inept offensive rut.
Modern defense have seen all this shape has to offer. Either you need to offer a new version of it (akin to what the Rabbitohs had been running on their scintiliatting left-edge under Anthony Seibold), a perfect version of it (like the 2019 NRL premiership winning Roosters had done) or essentially treat it as a nice to do, rather than a key part of your offence.
The last version was what the 2019 Canberra Raiders adopted. They actually offered a apporach that should have fit right into a Wayne Bennett style gameplan. Focus on defence, let your talent play with less strcuture. It had its limits but it was enough to get the Raiders 8 minutes from the most pure victory in the history of humanity (note: may be hyperbole). At the centre of all that was Josh Hodgson, probing, creating and most importantly with ball in hand, not watching James Graham take the line as a ball-playing forward like it’s 2012.
Admittedly this wouldn’t be a perfect solution either. The issue the Raiders had in 2019 was the big gap their forwards had to make up in size. The British forwards have been rolled repeatedly in their trip to the Southern Hemisphere. Partly this is because of international only uses one referee, making the ruck slow and letting teams with the bigger, more powerful packs take advantage. The Lions have simply been overwhelmed physically by both Tonga and New Zealand. Even with a more loose reign, there’s not much Hodgson could have done to ameliorate that.
But in the longer term the Lions need to embrace their comparative advantage: the unique talent they have with Hodgson, Whitehead and Bateman allows them to have ball players across the park. Instead of standard shifts they should be playing direct football that allows these three players to attack in multiple directions. Hastings and Widdop could operate in tandem with Batemand and Whitehead in an offence that would be much more dynamic and suited to the talent available.
And then maybe the British fans will get to see the Josh Hodgson Australia loves.