Raiders fans found out Sunday night Josh Hodgson is apparently out for 9 months with a torn ACL. Below is a one fan trying to deal with this.
I didn’t see Raiders superstar Josh Hodsgon hurt his knee. When I turned on the England and Tonga match on Saturday afternoon I’d just returned from an engagement party and had one or two celebratory beverages under my belt. England had been allowing back up hooker James Roby to effectively run their second unit offence all tournament, so when I turned on at the 35 minute mark to see England up 12-0 and Roby darting out of acting-half I thought nothing of it and enjoyed the footy.
When it was announced that Hodgson was hurt I assumed he would be back. When he didn’t return I assumed he was resting for the final. When it was reported he wouldn’t be playing in the final I thought maybe he had a bad, but not that bad, injury. Even then it never occurred to me that his ACL, and his 2018 may be in trouble.
So when it emerged Sunday night that Hodgson had hurt his ACL and would likely miss the first 16 rounds of 2018 (not to mention take an even longer period to return to full running strength and agility) I couldn’t believe it.
Rob, who writes about the Raiders in these pages too, was less circumspect. “Ban all rep footy” was his blunt response to my message. I found it hard to disagree.
I have loved this World Cup. It’s been an unquestioned success but there is nothing more important to me (in a sporting sense) than the Canberra Raiders. They had underperformed in 2017. But the glimpse of contending that we were given in 2016 was enough to hook me. I knew why we were good and how we could be good again, and Josh Hodgson was going to play a large part of that. He was going to take control of the front half of sets, and drive the Raiders forwards to the places they needed to get to. Halves Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin were going to take a back seat and let the second-best hooker in the competition work his magic.
Redemption for 2017 and a return to the promise land was in Hodgson’s hands for 2018. And now?
This was not how it was meant to be.
For starters the Canberra Raiders forwards are going to have less space to move in. One of Josh Hodgson’s greatest gifts is his ability to sell a direction with his body shape and his eyes, only to send the attack in another direction. It meant in many cases that running forwards got 2 or 3 extra steps before the defence could react and attack. Now defences will be given advance warning of the Raiders’ intentions.
With Hodgson in the middle the Raiders were able to craft tries through threatening the posts with big men. The English hooker would isolate a weakness in the defensive line, send two big men at either side of it and often turn it into points. So much of the Raiders redzone attack spread from there. The threat of big men in the middle drew extra defenders to the middle. Early in the game the big men would try to barge over. Later in the game they would become the decoys that gave the Raiders outside backs the space to work their magic.
That weapon, if not gone, is at least severely depleted. Instead whichever backup hooker that fills this spot – Baptiste? Garvey? – will try their utmost, but will lack the ball-playing skill and decision-making ability of Hodgson. They will not be the constant threat for a 40/20 that Hodgson is.
Instead Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin will have to do more. Sezer’s best came in 2017 when he took more organisational control of the side. It’s his best skill. He can run the Raiders set plays perfectly, and when called on is a willing and able ball-runner. In 2016 and 2017 he was asked to do these two functions and little more. Now he will have to improve again. Jack Wighton will have to continue to chime in off his shoulders as an effective secondary ball-player. In 2017 he had too many errors in his game. Will they ever disappear?
For his part, Austin is going to be asked to do more. Which is a problem. In 2017 Austin tried to do too much – too willing to take the ball for himself rather than let more talented runners outside him have the space to work. Now the ball will be in his hands even more.
But maybe Stuart will come up with a game plan that will bring the best out of Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin. Maybe Jack Wighton will become more involved as a ball-player, with the extra year of experience enough to remove the errors from his game. Maybe Garvey or Baptiste will do just enough to allow the forwards to do their work, with the emergence of Jo Tapine as a top-level forward the most likely result.
Maybe they will keep the Raiders close enough to the top end of the ladder that Hodgson can return in round 17 raring to go. Maybe the extra rest means Hodgson is just hitting his straps when the finals roll around and he unleashes the beautiful ball-play we saw so much before, and the first half of the final against the Sharks in 2016 is replicated across the finals series, the Raiders coming from sixth or seventh on the ladder to win that premiership that we all so badly want. The pressure will be off. Who knows what they can achieve?
Or maybe the Raiders just muddle through another year. Develop another year of experience, finish in the middle of the table, lick their wounds and come back for another shot in 2019. Hodgson will have rebuilt the strength and agility in his knee like many have before him, and after Cameron Smith retires he’ll become the premier hooker in the competition. He recently signed with the Raiders until 2022, so with a smart organisation and a good coach we can continue to contend once he returns.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see if that happens.