The 13 Minutes Challenge

BY DAN

Josh Hodgson story count: 3 GMP posts of Jamal Fogarty’s rig: 2

The Canberra Raiders got (relatively) good news when it was revealed that Josh Hodgson would only miss 2-4 weeks from the knee injury he sustained early in their round one victory. The injury was first revealed by David Riccio of the Daily Telegraph as just a “chip in the cartridge”, and according to Brien Seeney (Aka NRL Physio) means the Raiders will be without Hodgson for “only” 4 weeks maximum, instead of much longer (up to six weeks for MCL, or *faints* an ACL). This is good news in the grand scheme but presents a challenge in the short term.

It’s fair to say Canberra have cover at Hodgson’s nominal position of 9. In fact Hodgson hasn’t been playing the majority of minutes at hooker on a regular basis for the since mid way through last season (and given he missed most of 2020, arguably even longer). Tom Starling had been doing a good job in his place, and proved his worth through the first half on Friday. He tested the edges of the ruck with his feet, and even created a try with a near perfect kick for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. He tired as the game wore on (perhaps a contributing factor in his multiple second half passing errors) and began to fall off more tackles than a stout defender like him normally does (eight total missed/ineffective tackles, all but one in the second half according to Champion data), but he’ll be able to handle playing the extra minutes with more preparation. After all he’s done it before. It’s the least of the Raiders worries.

The real issue with Hodgson’s absence is the extra minutes it requires from Elliott Whitehead at 13. It’s clear that Smelly was meant to be play his key forward role for fewer minutes than he played in round one, and in all likelihood the job was meant to be shared with Hodgson. 54 minutes might not seem like a lot, but the role he is playing is physically demanding. He was gassed by the end of the first half and the Milk’s structure suffered as a result. By the 53rd minute he was dropping balls and giving away penalties. They looked like errors of fatigue.

Sharing the role between the two Englishmen makes a lot of sense. Both are excellent ball-players capable of making complex decisions at first receiver. Hodgson in particular is elite at identifying a weakness in the opposition line, be it a structural one or a tiring defender. He showed last season how comfortable he was one pass away from the ruck, and how much width this brought to the Raiders attack. Whitehead too is an underrated ball-player, as he proved on the weekend with his perfect ball to Corey Harawira-Naera that set up the Semi Valemei try.

I’m not sure what the specific rotation was meant to be (probably and even split of the minutes at 13), but the point was to always have a ball-playing forward on the field without stretching the physical demands on two of its most experienced players. Instead Canberra was forced into ‘playing big’; something they’d seemed intent on moving away from. For the first rotation of the second half they had Guler, Horsburgh and big Papa in the middle. The followed with errors, tired defence and let the Sharks back into the game. The errors hurt and some resulted from the expanded passing requirements on big men who weren’t suited to the job (like Papalii throwing the ball behind Schneider in good field position).

How to manage Hodgson’s time out will be a challenge. It would be unwise to abandon the (re) structure they’ve worked so hard implementing over the off-season, particularly given the likely shortness of Hodgson’s absence. It’s a shame it will be a while before we’ll get to see this in it’s designed form. Given Jamal Fogarty’s absence, this role is even more important, and the pressure it puts on other players to create in the short term is substantial. They need to find someone capable of filling that role so Smelly can play a more manageable number of minutes, and so Wighton et al don’t break their brains trying to do everything.

We’ve said before that Adam Elliott may be an option to fill in for Whitehead as a ball-playing 13. He may not have the same football brain as Smelly (though I’m not saying he doesn’t, just that it’s a demanding role that only rare footballers can handle) but he does have the passing game. Corey Harawira-Naera could happily play 80 minutes at right edge – he routinely did last year. It would potentially put Harawira-Naera, Schneider, Semi Valemei and James Schiller on the same inexperienced defensive edge without many options to change (as occurred against the Sharks when Harawira-Naera was subbed at halftime in exchange for the more defensively robust Elliott. Given a whopping 47% of the tries the Raiders conceded in 2021 were on the right side this may worry them. Unfortunately this is the challenge that is faced when the injury dominoes fall.

The Raiders could also use some better ball-play from its middle in support of whichever Elliott is in key forward role. Of the bigs that played Friday, Corey Horsburgh is probably the most comfortable passing – he had six passes on Friday, though Emre Guler notably had five (per Champion data). Ryan Sutton didn’t play, and it’s a role that’s always seemed to agree with him. This would at least put less pressure on Papalii to play this link role, and perhaps lessen the requirements on Whitehead.

A final option that is exciting but also carrying more risk would be to bring Adrian Trevilyan in as a 14. He’s shown in the first trial that he has the football brain and the passing that more aligned with Hodgson than Starling, which would provide some options to Stuart. It would also support Starling is handling those extra minutes at hooker, and as Josh Hodgson himself noted, Trevilyan has the potential to cover minutes at 13 as needed, particularly in a more mobile pack. This is more theoretically appealing than in reality. In a perfect world Trevilyan would get plenty of minutes in reserve grade, helping develop his body and game, and build his match fitness. Reserve grade will be better preparation for him to play full 80 minutes should the worst case scenario occur and Tom Starling suffer an injury while Hodgson is out. I’m not saying Trevilyan won’t be brought in. Sticky has been surprising us a bit lately, and while Adam Elliott can cover 9, an actual rake would be better.

However they choose to handle it, there’s a problem here but the Raiders are no strangers to finding solutions to complex issues already this season. That the challenge is not where Hodgson would normally reside is a reflection of the transition occurring at 9, and the change that have been instigated in the Raiders structures in the off-season (and also last year). Regardless of who replaces him in the short term, there’s no adequate solution that will replicate the width or football smarts Hodgson provides. He will be missed. It’s just another obstacle for Canberra to overcome.

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