The Battle for Hodgson

BY DAN

For a while now it’s been obvious like Josh Hodgson’s time in Canberra was limited. Hodgson has been a crucial part of the project of bringing the Raiders back to NRL contendership, and it’s felt like there was a desire to cast him aside before his time. Recently though there’s been enough sunlight poking through the clouds that maybe the state of play is changing, and Sticky even went on the record to say the Milk wanted their boy to stick around. But circumstances still favour him leaving.

Let’s start with the obvious. Canberra should want Josh Hodgson to stay. Over the past five and a half years, he’s established himself as one of the premier rakes in the competition. He’s not quick, and he’s not a powerful runner, but he sees the game as well as anyone in the league. He’s also, crucially, a creator. For all hookers from between 2015 and 2020, Hodgson was second in try assists (to Cameron Smith). This season, despite a much publicised falling out with Ricky Stuart, he’s leading the team in try assists, and has played a critical role in each Canberra victory. While he was out injured, the Raiders won as many games as James Hooper wrote useful and intelligent articles.

Since the introduction of the new rules much noise has been made about the need for the pacey hooker than can take cheap metres. But hookers in that style haven’t exactly flourished. Tom Starling was great in 2020, but struggled more when the forward pack weren’t making his work a downhill run. Damian Cook had 18 try assists in 2019, only 8 last year when the rules first changed, and only has 3 through the first half of the 2021 season. Meanwhile Hodgson’s 8 try assists rank (equal) second among hookers behind Reed Mahoney (12). It seems there’s plenty of space for a more crafty approach.

Josh Hodgson is an elite ball-player. Few hookers have been able to master the ruck, and create try opportunities for the big men around him at the rate, and with the consistency that Hodgson has over the years. The Raiders have had few elite creators in their time, and since Laurie Daley and Ricky Stuart left the club, I’d argue that you’re looking at a list along the lines of Campese and Carney and maybe depending how you feel, Jason Smith. George Williams may have been another but alas I guess only Warrington will know. Jack Wighton is an amazing player, but his best work isn’t creating, it’s taking. However you want to paint it, it’s not a long list. I say this to point out that if Hodgson walks, the probabilities are that Canberra don’t have another elite ballplayer waiting around the corner, either as a hooker, or in their halves.

The market out there for Canberra doesn’t seem plentiful when it comes to creators. The Raiders are pursuing Gareth Widdop (you can read our views here), a seeming bridge between now and the next generation (hopefully Schneider). But without Hodgson next year, it would mean they would be combining Starling’s downhill play with Jack’s running and…well, question marks. There’s not an established ball player among them, and I suspect it’s a big influence on why the Raiders upset the applecart to lure Matt Dufty to Canberra. Both Wighton and Starling are all upside and could grow into the roles, but it’s a big risk.

All this made it so very confusing when it emerged through various forms of media that the Raiders were souring on Josh in favour of Tom Starling. Indeed before the Cowboys game (which Hodgson missed with a calf strain), it was rumoured he had been dropped in favour of Starling, and that played a part in his stepping-down from the captaincy. There were reasons for this that I’ve addressed before, and they were mostly wrong. The word came down that Hodgson would be out the door, and Josh told the media that he understood the club’s position of wanting to go forward with Starling. This was never refuted by the club in a step that matched reports of that Stuart had briefed his mates in the media on his concerns with Hodgson’s play.

This all seems to have turned around with Hodgson’s excellent play of late. Last week Sticky went on the record saying he was hoping Josh would stay through the length of his contract, despite the contact rumours linking him to the Broncos. It was the first time Sticky has given voice to the interest to keep Hodgson in recent times, and seemed like a shift in tone and desire.

Still, it feels like the falling out in May took its toll and it’s hard to know what Hodgson and Sticky need to do in order to sort this out. If the pull factor to stay in Canberra isn’t strong right now (and you know, given all that’s happened, I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt better elsewhere), the biggest benefit to Canberra is that the Broncos are even more of a disaster, and are starting a rebuild of epic proportions. It’s one thing to leave Canberra because you and the coach had a bust up, or because he wanted to give more chances to develop to the young guy. It’s another go to a side that is taking cataclysmic disasters to the next level. Even with Adam Reynolds signed on for next year, there’s no guarantee that the football brain of Kevvie Walters extends to fixing the mess that club is right now. And maybe that’s enough to give Josh pause.

Hodgson can begin negotiating with other clubs after this season for 2023 and beyond, and any deal he inks outside Canberra will result in pressure for him to be released, which I would assume the Raiders would accede to. That’s the real problem with keeping him next year, or beyond. If Canberra aren’t interested in extending him beyond 2022, then the pressure on his departure will likely be too severe to stave off. In a perfect world the Raiders may want to keep him longer term, but it would potential threaten their ability to retain Tom Starling, who’s contract ends at the same time. That’s a discussion that Hodgson will likely lose, if only because he’ll be 33 and Starling won’t. Adam Trevilayan is also highly noted, and is also in the frame, and could be a variable if he begins to find the kind of form that might push Starling and/or Hodgson for time. It’s a complicated life managing a roster.

Hodgson will likely be seeking certitude, in both contract and role, and I’m just not certain the Raiders are prepared to offer him either beyond next year. If that’s the case, I hope the Raiders are sure about what they’re losing if they let Hodgson go. Because elite ball players don’t come to Canberra often. And Hodgson is just that.

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