The end of an era in Canberra was confirmed recently when it was announced that Josh Hodgson had signed a two-year deal starting in 2023 with the Parramatta Eels. It’s a deal should resolve the talk of his career, but is so far out it leave an array of paths for his time at the club.
To start with I’m happy for him. It gives him and his family some clarity of his future. Hodgson has been clear for some time he was looking for one last significant deal to see out his prime. He’ll be 33 before he’s available to play a game for the Eels. If there’s a significant deal out there for him after this one, then something unexpected has happened (for the Raiders at least). Hodgson can leave Canberra happy that he gave the city his all. The Milk can let him go safe in the knowledge they extracted sufficient value they could from his contract. Fly boboleta fly boboleta fly.
The club announced the departure alongside Bailey Simonsson. It was low key; no emotional thank you videos, perhaps reflecting the fact he won’t be actually gone for 12 months, perhaps reflecting the fractious nature of his relationship with Raiders potentate Ricky Stuart. Either way it was weird; to announce a ‘departure’ 12 months ahead of time, and to announce the departure of a club great with such understatement. I hope there’s something more towards the end of next season (or when he leaves). I’d argue Hodgson is one of the players most responsible for the best period of Raiders football outside the golden era, and it’s bad vibes to not offer his departure due recognition of that fact. I’m not sure what happened between him and Stuart last year, but Sticky is a big boy, and can put on some pants and say “we did something pretty cool together”, rather than let a few standard lines from Don Furner hang in the air like someone dealt it. In fact, Simonsson himself was more effusive to the Daily Telegraph than anything the Raiders said, pointing to the quality of Hodgson as a player, a leader and a mentor. Regardless, the Raiders got what they wanted – to let Tom Starling be the hooker of the near-term without the shadow of Hodgson hanging over him.
I think it’s a better deal than most for the Eels. There’s been a general theme in rugby league commentary that puts losing Reed Mahoney, who should have been the future of the club, against the addition of Hodgson and asks “why did we make this trade?”. But in reality the Eels lost Mahoney because of money they spent on Clint Gutherson, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, and Junior Paulo. When Mahoney walked (which surprised me), they looked around for a top grade rake. It’s rare to have one available, let alone just above the average wage. They’ll no doubt be scouring some of the biggest pathways in the game for people to play major minutes alongside and around, or supported by, Hodgson.
He’ll be playing in a more structured system than he had recently in Canberra, one that had been at it’s best in 2021 when Mahoney was able to test and probe around the ruck, rather than solely rely on the same sideways shifts every club does. Dylan Brown is about as clean a facsimile you can get for Jack Wighton in playing style, and Mitch Moses isn’t backwards about demanding the ball. At barely above the average wage it’s a pretty handy gamble for the Eels to be able to take while they develop their next long-term 9.
The next question becomes what sort of role Hodgson will play with the 2022 squad. The Raiders made such a song and dance and not releasing him for the Tigers’ deal because they wanted them to pay more, and because they wanted cover for Tom Starling’s legal situation. In that thinking Hodgson would play the same role as last year – opening the game at 9 for twenty minutes, before shifting to ball-playing role at 13 to provide some additional passing through the middle the Raiders lack without him. Starling would play sixty-ish minutes a game at 9, and the defensive load would be met by a better prepared middle and better organised edges. Hodgson has thrived in Mick Frawley’s offence before, and it might mean a different role this time around, but there’s nothing to suggest he wouldn’t again, given the opportunity.
I think this is an optimists take that assumes the bad taste of 2021 is washed out. Sticky has a long memory, and while he needed Hodgson last season because of injury and circumstance, there’s no such need this season. Sticky can happily place Hodgson in the waiting lounge, spending his remaining time in Canberra whittling on the bench with limited opportunities. It may sound harsh, but he is a man that made Nic Cotric play out his last season in Canberra on the wing rather than fill in the empty centre position the young man coveted, simply because he signed elsewhere.
Of course this might not be the most conducive thing for team harmony – something we’ve pointed out before. If the case is made on the basis of merit I’d still argue Hodgson is in the best 17. It’s hard to turn around to the rest of the squad and say “train hard, do your job, and you’ll get time” when the fine print says “unless me and you have a falling out.”
Given this, I would keep an eye on the Raiders interest and acquisition of a backup rake. That’s all that’s between the Raiders moving Hodgson on earlier. There’s a merry-go-round ready to rock and roll should the Raiders, Eels, Panthers and Tigers be happy to move a player sideways. It only takes one domino to fall and we could see chaos. Hodgson could end up at his new home early. In this scenario Canberra ends up with Jacob Liddle or a player of similar repute, and the post-Hodgson era officially begins. Alternatively a shift sideways for just 2022 doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility; a team that loses a nine and is still a contender may happily borrow Hodgson.
In the future it looks fine for all parties. But that’s the interesting part. The future looks fine, but it’s so far off. The fact we are where we are is, in part, due to the weird NRL system means clubs have to make calls on players effectiveness a year early. Sometimes you get the call right, sometimes you sign Jarrod Croker to an extension his knees can’t deliver. Sometimes you go the other way, and it potentially creates instability, and asking as many questions as it answers. In the past we’ve said we would maintain a watching brief on the Hodgson situation. A done deal for 2023 changes what that looks like, but doesn’t stop the questions.