Josh Hodgson is going to be out at least the first 16 rounds of season 2018.
This is a problem for the Raiders. Their only elite level ball-player, Hodgson was a key contributor to the Raiders recent run of success. Without him the Raiders will have to find a new way to be competitive.
So what will the first 16 rounds of 2018 look like? How can they succeed without our superstar, ball-playing rake?
The Raiders will go old school.
To be fair this isn’t a revolutionary concept for the Stuart-era Raiders. In late 2016 the Raiders brought back the ‘same side halves’ concept most teams had abandoned in the 2000s in favour of split halves. But contemporary concepts from the 90s era of Raiders brilliance can provide a good hint of how the Raiders can succeed without Hodgson.
You might remember mid-90s Raiders – they played with a ball dominant halfback, a running five-eighth and devastating ball-runners across the park. Their number 9 – Steve ‘Boxhead’ Walters – was one of the best to do ever do it, until Cameron Smith came and changed the entire purpose and nature of the number 9 position.
An old fashioned number 9
Boxhead Walters rarely kicked. He was not the Raiders primary ball-player. Walters simply chose to run when the metres were there, and the rest of the time simply gave the ball either to a forward steaming into the line, or to Ricky Stuart at first receiver.
It seems simple now but Walters was really good at his job. Generations of hookers have followed this path. Now this style of play is second-nature for all good dummy-halves.
Whoever replaces Josh Hodgson in the starting line up – either Craig Garvey or Silva Havili – will be able to perform that part of the role without problem.
Neither Havili nor Garvey will be expected to create or deceive from 9. Nor will they need to kick. Just take the metres or give it to a forward. Havili showed he could do that for Tonga in the World Cup. But the question is how the rest of the team fits in around that.
Can Aidan Sezer Do A Sticky Impersonation?
One thing that simplified Steve Walters’ job was the fact that Ricky Stuart was the allen-key for the Raiders attack. Standing one pass wide of the ruck he organised everything. He called the set plays. He manufactured points. And when none of that worked he kicked spiralling torpedoes to corners to give the Raiders field position.
Aidan Sezer is not Ricky Stuart, at least not in terms of his powers relative to the competition. But he can take a bigger role in the Raiders attack. Instead of splitting the field with fellow half Blake Austin, he should seek to be first receiver as much as possible. This will put him in prime position to control the Raiders attack.
Run more set plays with Wighton/Whitehead
That’s a lot of pressure on Sezer to create points. So the Raiders will have to use set plays more often than in the past.
Sezer has been the best Raiders half in terms of running the Raiders actually-rather-slick set plays. The Raiders only run them occasionally, often preferring a more improvisational approach. From first receiver Sezer can run more of these sets to manufacture points.
Jack Wighton improved over 2016 and 2017 in one area: his run/pass decisions as the secondary ball player in these movements. This is actually a step away from the old style. Back in the day the fullback hung around the ruck but mostly as a support runner. Rarely were they ball-players. Wighton will be asked to do more than old school fullback. And the Raiders will need every bit of his ability. It will test whether the errors that plagued him early in 2017 persist.
Elliot Whitehead can also provide part of the ball-playing that the Raiders lose in the middle of the park. He’s showed it in previous years, filling in at five-eighth with success. Whitehead can be the old fashioned ‘ball-playing lock’. It may have gone out of style but without Hodgson there will be plenty of opportunity for Whitehead to create in the middle.
Kick for space more
As first receiver Sezer is also best placed to do the majority of the Raiders kicking. Back in the day teams would kick for touch or for field position in order to pressure teams into errors in their own half. Mitchell Moses demonstrated this in the World Cup recently, kicking the Cedars into good field position and allowing their enthusiastic defence to do the work for them.
Sure it means your defence has to be aggressive (ah…) and your line speed rapid (*gulp*) but if those two issues can be mastered then Sezer’s long kicks could provide the Raiders with routine good field position.
(When all else fails) Let the runners run free
Blake Austin. Jordan Rapana. BJ Leilua (pending). They are all at their best with a bit of space to work and create. While I would have liked them to be operating more efficiently, no Hodgson is just going to mean more Austin and Leilua (pending). Often in 2017 the outside backs seemed frustrated at both the lack and the quality of ball they got and pushed passes to try and create. Well in 2018 the quality might not improve but the quantity could well do. And forget telling them to play conservatively. The Raiders should let Leilua (pending) et al play their ‘natural’ (loosest) games. Run the ball. Throw the flick passes.
*deep breaths Ricky*
Look, none of these plans are perfect. Hookers that can create and kick are critical points-of-difference in the modern game. Sezer has shown himself a capable organiser but it’s unlikely he can drive a dominant offence. Wighton is unequivocally talented but he would need to fulfil every ounce of his potential for the Raiders to succeed. The Raiders defence has rarely been described as aggressive. And putting even more ball in the hands of Austin and Leilua after a patchy 2017 is risky at best.
But frankly when you lose your best player for what is likely two-thirds of the season you have to take some risks to keep the engine running until the driver can return.
At the worst it will be interesting.