If 2021 wasn’t already in a full-fledged tailspin for the Canberra Raiders, then it got another little push towards bedlam when it emerged that Josh Hodgson had stood down as captain…two weeks ago.
This was a part of a series of stories that came out Tuesday evening. First Michael Chammas of the Sydney Morning Herald reported the Brisbane Broncos had considered making a play for the English rake on the basis that his tenure in Canberra felt shaky. This article included the fact that Hodgson felt unfairly blamed for Canberra’s recent struggles and that the Raiders had not expressed an interest in keeping him beyond the end of his current deal. A rebuke followed from the Broncos, saying they were interested at one point but are now not, suggesting that the source for the article wasn’t Brisbane. Then it was reported on NRL 360, before the Australian confirmed it with Raiders management that Hodgson had stepped down from the captaincy. If the timing is correct, it was right around the decision to leave him out of the squad to take on the Cowboys.
It’s hard to draw conclusions other than Hodgson’s time in Canberra is limited (and that perhaps, just perhaps, his current injury isn’t as serious as previously suggested). The reports of him being considered at Brisbane seem as likely to have come from his management group trying to test whether there was a commitment in Canberra for him, and to gauge what interest looked like outside it. The reluctance of Canberra to consider an extension beyond his current contract is another bad sign. Stepping down from the captaincy is usually something down only due to form, or loss of your position in the side, or both. Meanwhile I’ve got that sinking feeling. Again.
We wrote weeks that it felt like there had been a change in recent weeks in the pecking order. Tom Starling’s emergence over the last 18 months, the changing nature of the game, and the fact that Hodgson is on the wrong side of 30 have all contributed to this. For many this has been a long time coming, and turning over the side to Starling will be of benefit. The halves will get all the ball they want. A hooker will be in place that can run with pace in the space afforded by the new rules. The Raiders will thrive.
If you’ve read these pages you know I’m not a big subscriber to these views. It’s not clear to me that Hodgson is past it or that the Raiders are better off without him. Hodgson at his best is Canberra’s most creative ballplayer (a fact acknowledged by Benji Marshall in discussing the matter on NRL 360). The ceiling for this side is simply higher with Hodgson involved, even if it would take more work to get there. If you think he’s not suited to the current game, maybe wait five minutes, because the rollercoaster that is the V’Landys administration isn’t done yet, and only a fool would bet where it would end up.
With George Williams’ time-stamp already marked, the creativity and deception that Hodgson can provide around the ruck will be missed. It just isn’t replicated in many players across the competition, let alone this squad. We should see that as a risk, and a burden that Tom Starling will now have to cover, because once Williams goes he’s going to have to take on a bigger role than just running and shifting the ball. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a still developing player. I hope the club is making sure he has all the support in the world. I’m betting he’s ready, but nothing in this world is certain. Just look at this *gestures at the dumpster fire that is the Green Machine’s season*.
As I’ve said before, the noise around this team, and around Josh’s performance this year, has been unusually loud. It’s felt like most are ready to move on from him. If Hodgson is looking elsewhere for a home, and has handed back the captaincy, it’s hard for one to not think that Coach Stuart has reached a similar conclusion as the masses. It’s an inevitable part of any football career, and Ricky Stuart knows that as well as anyone. Players come and go, and it’s up to the Coach to make hard decisions. Let’s hope Sticky has got this one right, because when considered part of the Tapine, Papalii, and Williams situations, it simply doesn’t feel like stable. This is just more wood to an already roaring flame.
At a personal level, it’s profoundly saddening. We started this blog at the end of 2014, and spent most of the first few years of it writing love letters to Josh masquerading as game reviews. He plays the game in such a cerebral way, relying on guile and intelligence rather than athletic dominance. He is the living embodiment of the idea that rugby league is a more of a thinking-man’s game than popular commentary would give it credit for. Alongside Josh Papalii he has been the central thrust of the best period to be a Canberra Raiders fan since I was a child. If he leaves the Raiders, I’ll be beyond gutted, and I’m certain he’ll succeed elsewhere.
It’s a rough time to be a Canberra fan. I hope this team can find some quiet for the rest of the week (if only so I don’t have to write all this stuff in order to process my own feelings). There’s a task ahead of them on the field that’s been overshadowed by well, everything this week. A victory is something desperately needed right now.
The chaos around this side has to subside at some point but this won’t be the last that we hear about the Hodgson situation. The rugby league media will circle this until there’s a resolution, and I will be genuinely shocked if that end point is anything but rancorous. I just hope Josh finds himself the future he deserves, and I hope the Raiders are satisfied they’ve made the right decision.