One of the challenges facing the Raiders in 2021 will be how they reintegrate their star dummy-half and captain Josh Hodgson into the starting side. Injured in round 9, Hodgson sat on the sidelines as the younger model, Tom Starling, helmed the Raiders’ ruck all the way to the preliminary final. By the end of the season, questions about how he fit into the side were bubbling up and around.
Much was made in 2020 about Josh Hodgson’s form. Many thought he overhandled the ball, particularly in the attacking twenty. Some believed Tom Starling’s more ‘hands off’ and narrow-focused approach suited the playing styles of George Williams and Jack Wighton more. This was exacerbated by the changing nature of ruck play and the increasing emphasis on speed around the ruck.
If you’ve read these pages you’ll know I don’t subscribe to this view. While Hodgson did struggle at times in the post Covid period, particularly in balancing his role with George Williams’, concerns of his play were overblown. He often bore the blame for a pack that struggled to acclimatise to the new style of play after the introduction of the set-restart for ruck infringements. The game became narrower, more focused on winning a quick ruck and playing directly off that. The pack struggled initially to adjust to change – they were outgained in 8 of the 10 games after the break, and it was’t until Joe Tapine’s form picked up, and the draw became a bit easier, that they began to win the metres battle on the regular.
Hodgson’s response when the middle wasn’t winning was to actually feed Williams the ball more. Pre Covid Williams averaged 37.5 touches a game. Acknowledging the terrifyingly small sample sizes here, in the six full games he played with Hodgson post break Williams averaged nearly 47 touches a game (incidentally, this dropped to 42.6 touches a game without Hodgson). This was even more than Jack Wighton (42.7 across the season, 41.25 with Hodgson).
Of course there were moments where Hodgson seemed more focused on testing the defence around the ruck close to the line. It feels uncontroversial to suggest that the Milk were too reliant on crash balls early in the season, (and also too reticent to use them after Hodgson went down, hence Starling’s total of 2 try assists outside of the Baby Raiders game). However, what many saw as Hodgson’s over-handling was often his recognition that Canberra’s forward pack had not done enough to earn the right to push wider. Sending it wide to Williams with a fast defensive line in his face wasn’t going to help anyone.
Of course it wasn’t every time. Hodgson and Williams will need to work to perfect their connection and the balance thereof. This will take time, as both do best with the ball in their hands. But they’ve only had a handful of games to work on it so far, and what was considered a disjointed, or unbalanced attack in 2020 will only improve with more repetitions. A full pre-season will be helpful.
Indeed Hodgson’s ability to manipulate the ruck will be at more of a premium than it was in 2020. The introduction of the six-again rule out the blue tested the fitness of defenders, and made pace in the ruck the only thing that mattered. Get it and go became the mantra, and the only manipulation needed was a run-pass decision. Markers weren’t even on-side for many rucks. But in 2021 players will have a full pre-season to prepare. The premium will be put on fitness, and getting in place for defence in 2021. The space and pace gains of 2020 may be less prominent, and suddenly the ability to find less obvious ways forward will be important again.
Hodgson’s return will also allow Williams to play wider on the right should he see fit. The style of game that both Starling and Havili played meant that Williams was often set up very close to the ruck. This suited him when he wanted to switch sides, but it often left the right side of the attack lonely. The Raiders scored 45 per cent of their tries down the left, and only 25 per cent on the other edge (per statsinsider.com). Only the Knights scored a smaller proportion of points on that side of the field. Despite picking up their scoring at the end of the season, they still relied on exceptional individual efforts and play through the middle and left thirds to find their points. This will only be exacerbated by the departure of John Bateman, who provided so much creativity on the right, as well as a critical link to the outside men.
Hodgson’s ability to send passes 25m across field to either edge can help develop more variety, and a more balanced attack for the Milk. It will allow Williams to set up as the fulcrum on the right, able to make the critical pass/run decision, rather than that option being taken by a player outside him. This doesn’t need to be the only position that Williams adopts – there is great benefit to him playing close to the ruck, such as when he shifts across to the left to combine with Jack. However, it does means that width when appropriate can be utilised. The challenge then becomes when Williams situates himself wide, and when he comes in closer. That’s a strategy and balance thing that only comes with the cohesion that is built through repetition and time.
Of course this doesn’t address how Tom Starling will fit in. I suspect he will be deployed in 2021 much in the same way that Kurt Baptise was in his time with the Raiders. Short stints around the half and end of games are a start, but longer stints may be in his future if I’m wrong about the above. In addition, Origin 1 saw both sides having three playmakers (well 7 for NSW depending on how you count) on the field at the same time, and given Wighton’s tendency to hang on the left edge exclusively, there’s plenty of space for Hodgson and Williams to operate as dual ball-handlers. I’ve never been a fan of this, but it’s an option, and one that will provide plenty of variety (while sacrificing defensive structure by potentially putting two small defenders in the middle).
Starling’s was an important signature, not just to keep talent at the club, but to provide insurance if Hodgson, or his knees, aren’t firing in 2021. I don’t think either of those scenarios are likely, but you gotta be prepared. Hodgson is 31 now, and not many players come back easily from multiple knee reconstructions.
In all likelihood through, Hodgson will be back and raring to go from the beginning of 2021. He was already moving around handily at the end of 2020. Some may be worried his return will upset the balance established in his absence but Hodgson offers the Raiders’ attack greater balance and variety, not just through his work around the ruck, but also in what he can open up in George’s game. There is no doubt that there will be a need to work on cohesion, but the upside of a Williams/Wighton/Hodgson troika should excite.
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