In recent weeks as the Raiders have played both Tom Starling and Josh Hodgson for the majority of the game. It’s meant that the rotations through the middle are less, and this has changed (yet again) how Coach Stuart is using his bench.
After spending much of the year using Starling as an afterthought, Stuart has swung around in the other direction over the last five rounds, bringing him on routinely around the 25 minute mark and playing him for 50 plus minutes at hooker. As Hodgson shifts to a ball playing position one-wide of the ruck, the middle nominally playing lock is substituted. Thus the middle rotation for that last sixty minutes is effectively four or five players for two spots.
This has allowed Stuart more flexibility in how he uses the middle forwards. The main ramifications of this has meant proportionally more minute loads for Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine. Or put more accurately, a dramatic reduction in opportunities for middles that aren’t them. Emre Guler’s minutes have steadily declined, from 40 plus against Manly and the Sharks in round 17 and 18 down to 33 against the Knights and just 28 against the Dragons. Ryan Sutton started at lock in the Manly and Sharks games and played 56 minutes and 59 minutes respectively. That became 40 minutes against the Eels, 36 minutes for Hudson Young as starting lock against the Knights, and just 31 minutes for Sutton in his return in the Dragons game. Corey Harawira-Naera, playing as a rotation forward against the Dragons, got one spell of 23 minutes split around halftime. Meanwhile Tapine and Papalii’s minutes have steadily increased – Papalii had a whopping 57 minutes in the Dragons game, and Tapine had a season high 56 minutes against both the Eels and the Knights.
Much has been said of the benefits of Hodgson playing wide of the ruck. On current form he’s the only Raider that can identify weakness in the defensive line, attract defenders’ attention and provide opportunities for players around him. Play him at 7 and he creates for the backline. Play him at 9 and he creates for the forwards. It’s no shock that the only tries coming from the middle forwards recently have either been created by him, Starling solo efforts or happy accidents (such as Papalii’s try against the Knights where he simply Damian Cooked the whole team).
That debate aside, there is benefits to this approach for the forward rotation. It means Canberra can load up on Tapine and Papalii. Their 2020 success was built on the backs of these two workhorses. They are elite middle forwards, consistently bending and breaking the line on every carry. Both can turn a defensive effort into a weapon, crushing opponent momentum and forcing errors. Getting proportionally more efforts from them in the middle can improve the performance of Canberra’s middles through addition by subtraction.
It also means that the forwards that do rotate through the middle can play with the abandon of knowing they won’t be there long. Players like Harwira-Naera can play purely as impact, pushing out multiple efforts on sets and really taking it to tired opposition forwards. This is particularly useful with the current ruck interpretations, meaning forwards can come on and play with pace without having the worry of sustaining effort for a long time.
It also gives more flexibility in cover. Harawira-Naera (or Young) can spend energy on impact, while also providing piece of mind that the Raiders have options should the worst happen to any player in the forward pack. It also allows the privilege of carrying a spare back on the bench, meaning the issues the Milk faced with losing backs to injury early in the season can be avoided. Or, and let’s not get too crazy, subbing a back who’s workload is such that they run themselves to cramp (like Charnze has always been a fan of, and Rapana seemed to do against the Dragons).
But it does come with risk.
For starters it lessens Ryan Sutton’s comparative advantage. He’s an excellent middle with a frankly stunning motor – the kind of prop that can survive in Vlandoball because he can handle the minutes, and handle the agility required over long periods of time. But he’s a volume player. One of his great strengths is that his first carry and his last are almost identical. The initial foray may not send defenders flying, but late in the day it’s these carries that magnify Sutton’s value. Suddenly he’s being asked to play potentially as little as 30 minutes a game as the middle forward opportunities dry up. It’ll be intriguing to see if he can be as effective if Sticky keeps his minutes low.
It also restricts how the Raiders fit Hudson Young, Corey-Harawira-Naera and Elliott Whitehead together over the medium term. Young and Harawira-Naera are younger, and both suited to playing on the edge. The workaround we outlined was Whitehead moving to the middle. While Hodgson is unlikely to be in Canberra beyond the life of his current deal, the Milk potentially won’t be able to see if those three backrowers can play consistent minutes together (and specifically if Elliott can handle a middle workload) until Harawira-Naera will be well into negotiation a new deal (should Canberra go down this path with him). It’s not a massive risk, and there are other workarounds, but it’s an interesting short term ramification of this approach.
Then you have the *ahem* limiting issue of carrying Sam Williams, Tom Starling and Josh Hodgson across the defensive line. We’ve harped on this as an issue before, but so far it hasn’t bitten the Raiders too hard. Sure Sam Williams attracts ball-runners like anti-vaccination conspiracies and minions memes attract that aunt of yours, but your half generally comes with a second rower who’s job description it is to protect them. But when often the fill-in second rower is Josh or Tom (when the second-rower has made a tackle and is at marker) it creates the kind of situation that good teams will target. It’s held so far, but wait until it’s the blind-side target of a Papenhuyzen, Trbojevic or Tedesco. That’s when you’ll get a real idea of how robust it is.
But this is the way forward, at least in the short term. Canberra’s only creative player is Hodgson, but their most dynamic runner is Starling (or Jack? Jack prove me wrong), so keeping them on the field together yields obvious benefits. Apart from more width and variety in their attack, it means more Papa and Taps (proportionally) and more opportunities for bench players to play with impact. The risks, not the least defensively, will be tested in the coming weeks. Then we’ll see if it’s good policy.