Can Blake Austin Play Hooker?

BY DAN

It has been reported by Jack Blyth over at Zero Tackle that the Raiders are considering Blake Austin as a potential fill-in at hooker for the injured Josh Hodgson. It represents a rebuke of the Raiders last minute recruitment following Hodgson’s injury. More importantly though, it engenders the question, can Austin actually play hooker?

austin
Even Blake isn’t sure

Regardless of whether Austin is capable, this revelation suggests that neither former Bulldog Craig Garvey nor Tongan international Siliva Havili have impressed the Raiders. It’s hard to criticise the recruitment as the Raiders had to move on previous back-up  Kurt Baptiste in order to fit under the salary cap. The only injury the Raiders weren’t prepared for was one to Josh Hodgson. Garvey and Havili were part of a small recruitment pool, especially after the NRL decided not to grant the Raiders a salary cap exemption after Hodgson’s injury.

In this time of January panic it seems the Raiders may have turned to Blake Austin to fill this role. The logic for the move is clear to us. For starters, the Raiders have multiple first-grade quality halves. Sam Williams was likely to start the season on the bench or in NSW Cup. Austin can be moved and replaced. Austin would play as a running hooker and create around the ruck and his kicking game would give the Raiders a third option on the last. Defensively he has shown an ability to be physical in defence, and while sometimes his decision-making has been flawed out wide, a higher work-rate would be matched with easier decisions.

But it is not a foolproof idea.

For starters it removes Austin from his most effective position. In these pages we have often been critical of Austin, but it is unquestionable that he is best positioned when playing second receiver. Playing wide simplifies the decision required and when Austin plays straight his ball-running threat opens up a lot of space for the Raiders outside, and inside him. By moving him to the middle of the park Austin is required to make a whole new, more complicated set of decisions, with much less time on his hands. It would also undermine his development as a half, giving his less time in a position he’s still learning to be effective in. If the Raiders are considering premierships in the coming years, they need Austin to be an effective half. Playing hooker is unlikely to benefit his development.

This move would also undermine Aidan Sezer’s ability to dominate the ball. We have said in these pages, and Sezer himself has admitted publicly, that the Raiders success without Hodgson will rely on his ability to organise, direct and structure the attack. Instead of the ball being in Sezer’s hands on most plays, Austin would control the side. In 2017 Austin’s inability to adequately feed his right edge created a great deal of frustration for fans and players alike. That was solved by moving Austin to the left side. Having both sides now dependent on a still-learning Austin at hooker seems problematic.

Defensively Austin’s physicality in defence is noteworthy, but sporadic in games. His line speed is often poor, and despite his ability to lay a good hit, he often is physically overwhelmed by forwards. Putting him at the mercy of say, Jason Taumalolo, seems unfair and unrealistic. Moreso the Raiders would then have 3 small bodies in the line for opposition to energise sets by running at. The Raiders had enough problems in 2017 keeping teams under 60 metres each set, and Coach Stuart has acknowledged this has to change in 2018. If teams can aim their attack at an Austin, Williams or Sezer on pretty much every tackle that problem will continue.

The most likely outcome of this is that Austin plays as a hooker option rather than as full-time rake. Garvey or Havili can start games, and Austin can come on at the back end of halves and run the ball around the ruck. This role would be similar to Matt Bowen’s role in State of Origin in the early 2000s. Austin would have free rein to move and create as he sees fit, and it would be less physically demanding to deal with rotation forwards rather than the mess that can be the first 20 minutes of NRL games. Again this complicates Austin’s role within the side, meaning he will be learning one role while he tries to continue his development in another. Hardly ideal, but then again no one wanted Hodgson to miss a game.

Part of me wonders if the Raiders are underestimating the change that has occurred to the number 9 position over recent years. This is no longer a position where a journeyman or spare forward will suffice. Glen Buttriss, Mick Crocker and Alan Tongue are no longer able to fill this role effectively. This is a specialist skill position. It requires someone who can read the play, be deceptive and creative to earn extra space for his forwards and set up tries for the backs. Rakes must also be physically capable of bringing down Taumalolo, Graham, Vaughan and the like. It may well be the hardest position on the ground. Garvey and Havili may not be impressing, but they may be better placed to deal with the demands of being an NRL rake.

Ultimately though the Raiders are desperate. Their best chance for 2018 is currently running on a zero-G treadmill and won’t be back until the back half of the competition at the earliest. This may just be a momentary trial to see if Austin is an option. We may never hear of this again – just another January thought-bubble. There is no doubt that Austin at hooker is not their preferred option.

Can he play hooker? Sure. Should he? Probably not.

Hey we write this stuff for fun. To help us keep doing this, it would be super ace if you liked our page on facebook or gave us a follow on twitter

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Can Blake Austin Play Hooker?

  1. Pingback: Too Slow Ricky

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s