In a recent article by George Clarke of FoxSports, Josh Hodgson himself provided a hint (or a smokescreen: you choose) into how the Raiders might integrate his talents with Tom Starling in the upcoming year.
Josh has a lot of interesting takes actually. Before we start go read the article. I’ll even link it again.
Integrating the two hooker is a question we’ve asked ourselves over the off-season. Our view had always been Hodgson would start if he was fit. While the middles are being tired by the incessant rule changes designed to quicken the pace of the game, rather than unleash un-checked speed in the middle, it had put a premium on ball-playing in the middle.
This piece from The Rugby League Eye Test gives us a bit of context as to why this is happening. Essentially 2020’s random rule changes exacerbated existing trends in rugby league that increased the conservatism of attack reduced the running tendencies of 9s.
We saw an increase in one-pass runs on previous years.
We also saw a reduction in dummy-half runs.
As well as a general reduction in the amount of passing per play.
What’s all this mean for Hodgson and Starling? Firstly that Hodgson will (as always) be critical to the Green Machine’s chances in 2021. We saw how this will work in the trial, where Hodgson repeatedly tested the ruck with plays in that game that barely moved a pass wide of the ruck. (He did however have a few very handy dummy-half runs. Take that stats!). Like Cam Smith, Api Koroisau and Harry Grant did in 2020, Hodgson showed that the winners from the new rules are people who can create rather than just run.
I’ve not got a good read on why this is. The League Eye Test posits its part of growing tendency towards conservatism in response to the extra tackles granted by the set-restart. Rather than tiring defenders being an opportunity for width, they seem to be an invitation to push more attack down the middle. Now these tendencies will be reinforced by additional changes to the rules in 2021.
So if the role of a creative nine is important, how can the Raiders use two of them at the same time?
In the past when Hodgson shared the floor with another rake, he tended to play as an extra forward, even taking hit-ups (much to my chagrin back in the day). That was a pretty standard approach for two nines to share the field, something mirrored by teams like the Dragons last year. It’s been a relatively standard approach and one that is becoming more popular.
I’ve seen Conor Watson – one of the smaller blokes in the competition – going to loose forward for the Knights. Then you’ve got Brandon Smith, Victor Radley and Cameron MurrayHodgson to Clarke
In this circumstance Hodgson has named some forwards who offer extra ball-play, as a creator around the ruck but also as a link to wide-running halves. Indeed rather than play as a forward, the concept as ideated by Hodgson is to play as an ball-player.
I have played a bit of loose forward back in the day. Not the ball-running type, more the ball-playing type. There’s always an option there.Hodgson to Clarke
Utilising an extra ball player in the middle is not a new idea. Indeed it’s been used a few times recently at origin level. Throughout recent years Queensland have often deployed the tactic of bringing Ben Hunt or Harry Grant off the bench to play alongside the likes of Munster, Cherry-Evans, Friend etc to open up their attack.
It’s an enticing idea in theory to have extra ball-players. In a game that is drawing tighter around the ruck it adds inherent width by shifting halves to second receiver. Both Starling and Hodgson are capable first receivers and have created tries for the Raiders standing wide of the ruck (Starling , as noted by Nick Campton on a recent episode of NRL Boom Rookies, most famously in his first start out Papalii through a gaping hole standing wide of the ruck).
In the Canberra version I suspect Starling would predominantly play rake, with Hodgson playing a Nathan Clearly style role on both sides of the ruck, allowing Williams and Wighton to shift wider to the edges. It would mean an extra creator in the middle, and could allow both halves a little more space to isolate edge forwards to embarrass with their agility (Williams) or their made-of-titaniumness (Wighton).
It offers an additional point of attack, particularly in the red zone. Too often in recent years the Milk have been somewhat limited in their options in attack when in limited space. Essentially they been caught up in the options off two fulcrums: Hodgson working with a middle forward, or Jack running/working with Elliott Whitehead. Adding an extra ballplayer to this mix could provide the extra flexibility the Raiders need (or Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s development, as identified by the inimitable Jack Cronin here could do the work). An extra threat to create in the middle third could be enough to make defences hesitate, and create the space for magic.
The point here is not certainty of this option, but rather the flexibility offered by its existence. When Baptiste played alongside Hodgson it wasn’t a given he’d use his single-minded ability to find the try line every game, but he did it enough that it could make a difference. Similarly, Hodgson and Starling may not make sweet music every game, but the ability to lay a phat beat down when nothing else is grooving is useful.
The major questions about the utility of this option are the opportunity cost and the defensive frailty. Jack Cronin also pointed out here that Hodgson’s defence isn’t perfect, and like many nines he needs support in the defensive line in order to stop things like Lindsay Collins running over him such as occurred in the trial. Similarly, Tom Starling is a robust defender, but big players still target him. While he rarely misses, he can still be a source of quick play the balls, and has also been beaten laterally when the Raiders have hid him on an edge.
This contributes to an increasing workload on the remaining middles. As we noted earlier, there’s more play close to the ruck under the new rules. If Hodgson or Starling isn’t taking hit ups, suddenly there’s pressure on them to take a bigger load, or other players (like Nicoll-Klokstad or the backrowers) to get involved in hard carries. Again, not a problem if used right, but particularly with edges and wingers it can create problems for transitions between offence and defence in addition to the increased workload. Given the workload pressures already placed on middles by the new rules, this could be a stretch. There’s also the opportunity cost of leaving more of the 17 world class middles the Green Machine have on the bench.
This is the trade-off. Bringing multiple little guys on to the field can leave you (relatively) weak in defence and create workload challenges. That doesn’t render the idea useless, but rather acknowledges that there are no perfect options. As Josh acknowledged this is just something that Sticky can keep up his sleeve, much like my suggestion of the pace-and-space Young/Taps/James middle rotation.
It remains an intriguing idea though, and one I hope to see in operation. In times where the head of the competition is willing to change the rules on a whim you need to have depth and be flexible in how you deploy it. Tom and Josh playing together represents both.