The Canberra Raiders injury woes have reached a new level of pain with the devastating likelihood that Josh Hodgson will miss the rest of the season with an ACL tear. There are no good solutions to his absence, but there are least worst options.
Zugswang is a chess term that means essentially that there are no good options. It’s used to describe situations where all potential moves available to a player would put them at a disadvantage. The injury to Josh Hodgson, compounded by those that came before it, have put the Canberra Raiders in zugswang.
This is because you can’t replace what Hodgson provided. At his best he’s one of the best at his position in the world. Creativity, deception and smarts out of 9 are a big part of success in the NRL, and this is only more important this season. He makes the lives of big men easier by finding them advantage where none existed, and has been a critical part of dragging defensive attention and pressure away from Jack Wighton and George Williams. There simply isn’t a like for like replacement.
This isn’t your 2017/18 Raiders though. That side that had a roster situation that was ill-prepared to lose Hodgson. Canberra have made a lot of sensible roster decisions in recent years, to the extent that they have not one but two serviceable options to fill time at hooker. It’s a long way from Aidan Sezer being forced into the position to jeopardise his career while the side searched the scrap heap for off-the-books rakes.
But even a well-managed roster is not designed to handle this kind of attrition. You could make a decent pack with the players the Raiders have lost to injury and retirement in the last few months. It’s one thing to lose a game-changing spine member. When you add up the cumulative impact of Canberra’s injury list, it means solutions to the Hodgson injury create problems elsewhere.
The most obvious scenario – playing Siliva Havili major minutes at nine – is the most stabilising for the side. Havili has been increasing his minutes each week, and seemed to handle 53 minutes at hooker with relative ease this weekend. He can provide thrust and direction around the middle, if not the creative genius and deception that Hodgson at his best provides. At the very least Havili will provide won’t hurt the Green Machine in attack, and the Raiders proved on the weekend that Siliva can provide good enough service to provide Wighton and Williams with the space they need to operate. More will be asked of the halves, but there’s no better way forward now. If Havili can last 55-60 minutes, Tom Starling can spell him on either side of half time, allowing him a lengthy break to make sure he can make the minutes.
But this robs the Raiders of one of their best rotation forwards. Whereas last week the Milk were searching for 15 decent minutes from a warm body – which Kai O’Donnell provided adequately enough – they would now be searching for 50 odd minutes in replacement of Havili. This means everyone’s minutes would go up. Joe Tapine’s 50 minutes have to become 60, much more than he’s played as a middle forward this season. Josh Papalii’s 62 would have to become 70, with only short break on either side of half time available for his rest. Ryan Sutton’s 45 minutes would need to become 60, and Dunamis Lui would have to reprise the 60 minutes he played against the Storm. Add in the fact the Raiders seem hell-bent on bringing Curtis Scott into the 17 and the middle forwards will have to do more work with less backup.
The other option is to switch Tom Starling and Siliva Havili. Starling could take over as the starting 9, allowing Havili to play major minutes off the bench in either a middle or as a hooker. Whereas putting Havili at hooker robs the Raiders off their best bench rotation, putting Starling at hooker potentially undermines the Raiders’ biggest strength at the moment – the robustness of their defence. It’s not that Starling is a bad defender; indeed he’s all heart and effort. But he’s not the biggest guy, and he’ll be like a red rag to a bull for opposition packs. Any decent coach will target him to make a multitude of tackles, and seek to earn quick rucks and set-restarts by putting him in difficult situations.
A mixture of those scenarios seems likely to me. Start Havili at hooker to take the brunt of the early physical exchanges, bring Starling on after 20, shift Havili to a middle position, providing a bit of ball play in the middle and then make a decision at the back end of the game as to who plays crunch time at 9. This is an imperfect solution. It could exacerbate the lack of cohesion and continuity the attack has been desperately trying to remedy in recent weeks. Even more, you’d still need to spend a rotation getting Havili off the field for a spell in the middle of the game. That could be an opportune to use another young forward like Darby Medlyn for 15-20 minutes around halftime, but with O’Donnell already in the side, it’s hardly a good time to debuting another young forward, especially one that hasn’t played any real footy in four months. Zugswang is a bitch. Curtis Scott off the bench as a middle doesn’t really inspire confidence either.
Scott seems likely to re-join the rotation also, but this has still puts additional burden on the middle forwards that remain. Other options like bringing in Harley Smith-Shields or an extra half (like Sam Williams or Matt Frawley) offer little in the way of ameliorating the pressure on the middle or providing a realistic option at 9. It seems bring Starling into the squad in support of Havili is the most likely response from Coach Stuart, especially given the turnaround.
This is going to put a substantially amount of pressure on an already stretched forward pack. They might survive in the short term, but there will be a need for more troops as the year wears on. There is a question as to why the Green Machine haven’t managed to find a first grade quality middle floating in free agency yet. I suspect they are reluctant to bring in a player that hasn’t been with a club recently simply because if Kai O’Donnell, who in Sticky’s words had been doing plenty of extras, was cooked after twenty minutes on the weekend, how long would someone who’s been out of club systems take to get up to speed? Add to that the fact that the Raiders seem to be very circumspect with their dollars at the moment (something that requires more investigation) and it can provide an explanation for the lack of urgency. Regardless, even if O’Donnell, or Darby Medlyn are able to become regular parts of the rotation, the Milk will still need to find a warm body to prepare, because they might not be able to field 17 players if this rate of injury continues.
The only heartening thing about this is the resilience the Raiders have shown, both on the field and off it. They spent the best part of the Storm game refusing to give in to odds that were in not insurmountable, at least in need of a good sherpa to get over. Then in the face of the media telling them the season was over, the response was a profound stick-it-up-your-whatsit. As a fan I can’t help but admire the attitude. I pray the take that brashness with them over the next few weeks. They’re underdogs now. Time for some poke .
The Raiders really don’t have any good pathways to follow. All they can do is buckle down and embrace the almost impossible situation they find themselves in. Such is the situation of zugswang – there are no good ways forward. Their only option is to fight their way out.
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