Josh Hodgson won’t be playing for Canberra anymore.
I say that as a low-risk prediction – a two-year deal is all but finalised with the Wests Tigers according to Michael Chammas of the Sydney Morning Herald. Once you start arguing about how much freight will be paid it means the central thrust – that a deal must be done – is agreed to. I say it too to acknowledge a reality that will represent the end of an era that culminated in the 2019 grand final. Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. Tomorrow is a different path, hopefully with a better end.
Mostly though I say it to myself, as a recognition of a reality that became clear in May of this year. The emergence of Tom Starling, the collapse of the Canberra’s season, Ricky Stuart’s preference to blame everyone but himself, and Josh Hodgson’s ongoing wrangle with his role in the current style – all contributed to what became a seemingly inevitable path. Once it was clear the Raiders weren’t going to bring back Josh after 2022 it felt like he would be gone as soon as a team offered him a multi-year deal. He’s got a family to feed, the Green Machine have a future to pursue. It’s just a shame that those things couldn’t intersect like they once did.
Hodgson had always been more than just a great footy player to me. He was a kindred spirit. A person who recognised that rugby league wasn’t just bash and barge, and that subtlety, intelligence and craft was as important to rugby league as a six pack, massive quads and ‘wanting it more’. He was the promise that the sport could be loved for more than its looks. Sending defenders one way with his body shape, or his eyes, dragging a defender to one player only to hit another. It was thrilling to see, to document, and to understand. Some of my favourite footy games of the last few years have been just watching him work over a side like a boxing pro. Tagging them, teasing them, finding the hole for the killer blow. It was understated but breathtaking. An artist at work. Baryshnikov in his element. Charlie Parker playing the break in Night in Tunisia.
Alas the game changed, and in the hullaballoo craft became less valued (though not less valuable). Games are now won without subtlety. The primacy is pace and power – the ability to win a ruck and then win it again, until your opposition physically couldn’t keep up. Now the sword is mightier than the pen. And Hodgson, partly because of his stubbornness, partly because of an injury to his ACL, partly because in his absence the Raiders found someone who didn’t need to change to match the style, never was able to adjust and fit in. He never found a groove, and he and Sticky fell out. At that point the path back to normalcy always felt harder than starting over.
It doesn’t mean Hodgson is done. If he was going to a team other than the Tigers I would expect big things. Part of me wishes he picked a better side with a clearer role to chase success rather than money. But that’s just my naivety speaking. We all need to get paid, and rugby league players have a finite time to get that cash. But Hodgson can still make defenders dance, and even if the glimpses of his finest are fewer and farther between, he’ll still be better than anything the Tigers have to offer.
The Raiders go forward with Tom Starling – and one feels like his extension must be all but hammered into the stone by now. There’s going to be a different expectation on him from here out. Now he’s no longer the greener pastures; he’s the reality. There’s a calmness in his demeanour that suggests a quiet capability to deal with the new requirements, but it will require more than he’s shown so far. I have faith. The Milk will also need a backup hooker, because now they have Tom, and then Adrian Trevilyan, who’s barely played footy over the last two years. I’m not sure what the plans are – there are rumours of Mitch Rein being a target, which tells you this was never about Hodgson’s abilities – but they’ll need more than what they have.
I am going to miss Josh Hodgson. Alongside Josh Papalii he has been the heart, soul and brains of the best period to be a Canberra Raiders fan since I was a child. He brought hope when there was little. He brought intelligence when there was none. And he brought success to a place that needed it like farmers need drought-breaking rain. In everything the Green Machine did under Stuart, he was there, he was critical, and he will be gratefully remembered.
But Josh Hodgson won’t be playing for Canberra anymore.