The worst kept secret in rugby league was confirmed this last few days, with the Raiders announcing Josh Hodgson would play off the bench this week. Hodgson himself dismissed any concerns of his relationship with Sticky but conceded that Tom Starling was the choice for the future. It now seems accepted that Hodgson’s time at the club is limited.
The rationale for this is understandable. Starling is unquestionably a talent, and has many years of success and development ahead of him. The player he is now isn’t who he will finally be. He plays with a pace that the older Hodgson can’t match. His service is fine, and he doesn’t need much ball to be successful, theoretically allowing the Raiders to utilise their skills outside the middle more.
Hodgson admitted his role would likely be with Starling on the field, suggesting he’ll be a support player at nine, and more focused on the loose forward role. This doesn’t feel like the best way to utilise him or Starling. While I think their are ways this works, it does so with more Hodgson and less Williams; and that’s one thing the Raiders are
inexplicably seeking to avoid. As we’ve noted incessantly in these pages, Starling’s success in 2020 was born as much from the forward pack’s performance as it was from the rake’s impressive work. Giving Starling the keys, and carrying Hodgson as an extra forward will do little to spurn a change in that performance (unless Sticky changes his forward rotations).
In addition to reducing the manipulation means all the kicking has to come from Williams and Wighton, who both have flaws in their kicking games (particularly their long kicking games – some of George’s long kicks land so perfectly on the fullback’s chest he should think about playing AFL, and Jack buddy. Dude. My guy. Make it bounce). The option of Hodgson has been underutilised this year. This is clearly a game plan decision. I think it’s a flaw; the best period of Raiders second half play recently (of which there is virtually none) was Hodgson nailing some kicks from dummy-half against the Eels. For a brief moment Canberra could defend from a point of strength. It was rare in that game, and it’s even rarer since then. Williams and Wighton now know it all comes from them; while it doesn’t so much need to be better, it does need to be smarter.
Much is made of the perception of Starling as a defensive upgrade over Hodgson. It’s not one that’s necessary matched by the statistics. Their tackling efficiency is broadly equivalent (90 for Starling and 88 for Hodgson), equivalent (on a pro-rata basis) for ineffective tackles (9 for Hodgson to 6 for Starling) and line-break causes (2 for Hodgson, 1 for Starling), and Starling has more try-causes (3) than Hodgson (0) but I’m not a massive fan of that metric. Regardless, it does feel like Starling has far more dominant tackles than Hodgson, and that any weaknesses in his defensive performance come more from building up match fitness, and the performance of those around him (i.e. anyone isolated against Kalyn Ponga on the line is on a hiding to nothing). Regardless, if they’re playing together it just adds an extra target for the defensive line to aim at.
For his part Hodgson seems to be at peace with the decision, and keen to contribute however he can. As he told the media today:
Tommy’s been playing some good footy and if he’s the next generation in terms of what they want to bring throughout the club, I’m fine with that.
The media in attendance, such as Dan Walsh from NRL.com, interpreted that as Hodgson recognising that his been moved down the depth chart, and combind with some other statements, that he’ll likely be gone soon. Hodgson acknowledged he had four and five good years of footy left in him, and anyone paying attention recently would agree. He returned from an ACL injury on fire in 2018. He led the Raiders to the grand final in 2019 as the key creator, and was noted by many in the media at the beginning of 2020 as the best rake in the game. He leads the Raiders in try-assists despite missing Canberra’s last three games.
All that’s changed since that point is the game has put an emphasis on simpler touch-footy-style ruck-and-go footy, and Hodgson’s tried to incorporate a ball dominant half into the side. As I’ve noted before, my criticism of Hodgson (and the side generally) in that period has been a desire to get too much ball to Williams, at the expense of Wighton. The move to bring Williams to both sides of the ruck at the start of 2021 exacerbated this, and it was only recently ameliorated when the Raiders shifted back to split halves against the Cowboys. Without this I wonder if there would be such consternation about how the Raiders were adjusting.
Hodgson can still play, and can still be a dominant nine in the NRL. As he notes, he’s got four to five years of footy in him before he’s done. He was broadly clear with the media, saying his first preference would be to spend that time in Canberra. But given Starling’s ascension, and the limited utility of a backup nine in his style in the Raiders current game plan he uttered those words that are always true, and almost always suggest being open to leaving.
You’ve got to do what’s best by you, your family and your career. Your career is so short in terms of your life, you can’t have any regrets and I’ve never had any regrets so far in terms of big decisions I’ve made
If he leaves, Hodgson will be good for someone else. I pray it doesn’t happen, but I’m not going to lie to you and tell you he’ll be in Canberra beyond this year.
This is something he seems to have in common with George Williams. A litany of reports and rumours have recently all but confirmed that Williams will be at Wigan in 2022. Given part of the reason that Hodgson has been pushed out has been his inability to mesh with Williams, it’s profoundly disappointing to be losing them both.
Who the Raiders seek out to work alongside Starling is much different to who they would look if Hodgson were to stay around. Hodgson is a two-for-one; an organising half and a creative nine in one. Outside him all that is needed is someone that’s a defensive stalwart and who has a reliable short kicking game. Starling the kind of player that could mesh with a ball-dominant half like Adam Reynolds. Unfortunately there is only one Reynolds on the market right now, so the Raiders need to get moving on that, because after him the options are riskier (though cheaper) and more suited to playing alongside Hodgson.
The Raiders have made their choice, at least in the short term. Hodgson may well make Sticky eat his words, and spend the next four or five years in Canberra in a familiar, dominant role. But for now that seems unlikely. There is plenty of change afoot.