Before they decided to drop the ball all second half, the Canberra Raiders had a weight of possession and only mustered twelve points against a spirited Sharks defence. There’s clearly an issue of balance and connection, and it won’t be fixed immediately. For many the source of this frustration was Josh Hodgson, who for many observers is taking too much ball for himself, and not enough for George Williams.
The argument goes like this. Hodgson over-handles in the attacking twenty, taking opportunities away from Williams to be the primary ball-player. The result is a staid attack, and only two tries despite sixty per cent possession over the first forty minutes. Adherents of this position also see a simple solution of more Tom Starling, and consequently more George Williams, pointing to the Raiders attacking success at the end of 2020 as proof of concept.
Much of this discussion is built from a misinterpretation of the drivers of success in 2020. After Hodgson went down the Raiders attack did improve. But last year’s attacking flourish wasn’t built from a change borne from Williams or Starling’s insertions (though they both contributed much to the success of the side). It was built from a forward pack who’s improvement in the second half of 2020 was vast (see Tapine, Joseph), the success of the Jack and Smelly show on the left edge, and a flatline in the competition.
It’s not often talked about, but the forward pack struggled in response to the changed rules. As we pointed out in the season review:
The Raiders finished 9th in average metres per game. In the nine game ‘horror-draw’ period after the break, they only won the metre battle with their opposition twice (the Tigers and the second Storm game). It’s worst losses (the Knights, the Eels and the Storm prelim) came when the Green Machine’s engine room got rolled.Me.
In fact it wasn’t until the second Storm game in round 9 that the forwards began to find some swag. Hodgson had taken more onus on playing direct through the middle. Josh Papalii scored off his shoulder in that match, and anything felt possible. Alas Hodgson’s knee felt otherwise. The Raiders attack didn’t magically pick up at this point. The forwards got better and the competition levelled out. They scored 24 their next game against the Roosters. It was the most points they’d score against worthy competition the rest of the year.
The assertion that Starling’s insertion is what put the ball in Williams’ hands is wrong. In fact, it meant Williams got less ball and Wighton’s possessions increased (as we outlined here). The Raiders relied on the ball running of Wighton, and his connection with Whitehead (and Croker), particularly over the back end of the season. When it came to the redzone attack, they became the weapons of choice, providing the only structured play the Raiders could offer. The left edge accounted for 45 per cent of the Milk’s tries in 2020. The middle, which had always been a substantial part of the Raiders attack, was an afterthought. Starling had two try-assists across the season outside the Baby Raiders game, and one of those was at first receiver, when he hit Josh Papalii for his barnstorming try against the Roosters.
We can see this imbalance replicated in 2021. In both games Hodgson has pushed the ball to Williams. Williams had 48 possessions in round 1, and 39 in round 2 (per champion NRL data), Noting the small ample sizes, this is broadly in line with his 2020 averages. Jack however, has averaged 32.5 touches this season, down around 10 touches per game on his 2020 average. In the redzone this is pronounced. In the first half last weekend, by my count the Raiders had 38 tackles in the attacking twenty. Of these, Williams was the primary ball player (again, by my entirely subjective account) on 11 plays, compared to 8 for Hodgson, and 5 for Wighton. The others were positional hit ups – i.e. ‘settlers’, (7 run off Hodgson, 4 off Williams), or plays where other players were the primary ball players.
If less ball for Jack is the problem, it’s not the one that most have identified. It’s possible that Hodgson being back is taking the ball out of Wighton’s hands. If it is, the Raiders had identified it before we had. It seemed like the Raiders were making a concerted effort to get Jack more involved to start the second half. He was almost exclusively the primary ball-player on the sets in the first 10 minutes of the second half. But he went all Bad Jack on us and forgot how to football. Then everyone else dropped the ball and the Raiders were just holding on.
Indeed if my view if there is a criticism of the Raiders attack (apart from possibly not getting Jack enough ball) it’s that they are straying from the middle third too quickly. In round one the attack was shifting on a 45 degree angle, much like Parramatta’s had in their first game. The Coach noted it after the game, Hodgson noted it at half time, anyone watching noted it. No space was earned because there was no test to the middles. At halftime in round one the Raiders recognised the error of their side-to-side ways and pushed much more through the middle. Ryan James scored one pass off the ruck. Rapana’s try late came after Joe Tapine turned a run up the middle into much more. The other tries came from kicks and intercepts.
It was repeated in the early going of round 2. In the wet the lack space became pronounced and George Williams got caught with the ball more than once pushing diagonally (including once on the last), despite having more than enough time to send the ball sideways. On one occasion the Raiders missed a try when Williams took the line at 45 degrees with Jack leading a 3 on 2 sitting outside. In this game Canberra recognised their error earlier, refocused on the middle third and scored two tries barely leaving the tram lines. Both Williams and Hodgson began to focus closer to the sticks, repeatedly trying to bring Papalii and Lui at the end of their rotations, and then Sia Soliola and Ryan James through gaps. They nearly made it on several occasions.
So it seems to me the amount of ball that Williams is getting is closer to the problem. It’s not crazy to think that Hodgson has heard the concerns about fitting in. He’s shown a desire and willingness to provide space for Williams, but at the moment it’s at the expense of the middles, and of Jack Wighton. The first part they’d fixed by halftime in both games. The second part they may have started fixing in the second half of round two; only Jack’s butterfingers didn’t oblige.
This is not to say Hodgson has been faultless. The decision to get the ball to Williams at the expense of the middle, and of Jack, is his (and to an extent, the game-plan which seems to emphasise Williams getting the ball at first receiver on both sides of the ruck). His trust of the outside backs to make quick decisions close to the line may have suited BJ and Rapana in 2016, but regardless of overlaps, it may be too early to trust these inexperienced colleagues with such responsibility. I clearly think that Starling has a role in this side, and expect that he’ll be playing first grade in short rotations as soon as the Canberra middles work out what length rotations are possible under the new rules. Then we may see the disappearance of the Lui and Havili’s 20 minute stints for one forwards 40 spot. This would free up a spot for Tom to work with Josh. The risk here again is taking the ball out of Jack’s hands.
It’s a fascinating discussion and one that feels more strenuous in Canberra circles. It’s almost that because the Milk are so close to being great, and so laden with options, that any signs of imperfection is latched onto as a problem that must be solved immediately. I guess this is the curse of being good. No one wandered out of the weekend’s game wondering if Chad Townsend was the answer for the Sharks. Rewatching the Raiders first half against the Sharks with victory assured I saw a team that was working diligently through some minor issues that they had largely resolved by the time halftime rolled around. In the meantime they’d displayed an approach that wasn’t half as ineffective as is being portrayed. It’s a pity they forgot how to catch in the second half because I don’t think the attack was that far away.
Of course I could be wrong. Too many smart people have zeroed in on Hodgson as the cause of Canberra’s problems. At the very least there’s an unease at sharing the ball that doesn’t exist when there’s a less demanding player at ruck. There’s about 12 games of data against mostly bottom 8 teams saying the Raiders attack is “better” without Hodgson; that’s enough sample size for some people. It’s not enough for me. The upside of three elite ball-players co-existing should be too enticing. You don’t win premierships by playing safe.
I’ll probably leave it a while before revisiting the issue; simply because the heat around this discussion doesn’t match its significance. In the meantime I’ll be holed up on Hodgson island. Me and Sticky have all we need here. In the meantime let’s hope the Milk can balance their attack, allowing them to play to their strengths through the middle, and unleash
the kraken Jack Wighton. That won’t be solved by Josh Hodgson getting the ball in George Williams’ hands more.