NRL Canberra footy rugby league
NRL Canberra footy rugby league

Raiders must replace the irreplaceable

HOW do you replace something that's unique?

How does the machine keep going when its most vital cog vanishes?

In addition to all the issues that come about during a regular pre-season, Canberra have had one focus above all, one mission that could define their 2018 season before it even begins.

The Raiders will be without star hooker Josh Hodgson, their best and most important player, for at least the first half of the year and the club. It's been the dominant theme of their entire pre-season - after all, Hodgson has only missed two matches since joining the club in 2015.

It's hard to gauge just what they'll be without him because it's such a rare sight, but many believe it's a death knell to their premiership chances.

Can the Raiders replace Josh Hodgson?
Can the Raiders replace Josh Hodgson?

Canberra has left no stone unturned in their quest to cover for Hodgson's absence. They signed two players to duke it out for the starting hooker role, explored a possible switch for halfback Aidan Sezer and made inquiries as to the availability of Irish international Michael McIlorum, a move that ultimately fell through.

With Canberra's season opener against the Titans a mere 10 days away, here's each of the steps the Green Machine has taken to account for the loss of their talismanic dummy half.

THE REPLACEMENTS

Neither SIliva Havili nor Craig Gravey has played more than 30 first grade games, but one of the two is expected to start the season as Canberra's No. 9, with Havili presumably having the inside track after he started the club's lone trial.

Havili has never been a consistent starter in first grade, but does have some big game experience - he'd only played a handful of NRL matches before his Test debut for New Zealand and played a vital role in Tonga's World Cup campaign last year.

In fact, that Tongan run to the semi-finals helped secure Havili's NRL future - he was left without a contract after he departed the Dragons.

As a result, Havili is more used to pressure than some might think.

"Being a part of those games has definitely made the nerves a bit better and helped me deal with pressure a lot more," Havili told The Daily Telegraph.

"It's big shoes to fill. I'm not a Josh Hodgson. Neither is Garves. But we both have strengths in our games where we can help this team and help our team goals.

Havili is the likely starter for Round 1.
Havili is the likely starter for Round 1.

"I don't feel pressure at all. When pressure comes to my game it's a downfall to myself, so I like to play with a calm and fun mindset. When I do, I play my best."

Some hookers are content to simply throw the ball off the deck and make as many tackles as possible, but Havili isn't like that.

The Tongan international prides himself on his attacking game, and says Hodgson has been a tremendous in helping him to apply his own skills to his new club.

"Josh is like another coach," Havili said.

"During the field sessions he's there, he's helping us, he's always yelling at us with little technique stuff, cause he's a leader in the team.

"Everyone respects him when he has his say.

"As a hooker, you can overplay at times, you can overdo it a bit. It's just about realising the opportunity.

"The opportunity might not even come during the game. I might not run at all. But if it does come I have to take those opportunities.

"With this forward pack we do have I'd say it'll come a lot more than previous seasons. It's about the players adjusting to when I go too, if there's a quick play the ball and I take off.

"Everyone needs to get on the same page. You get that with every footy team. That combination will come with more time together."

That's the biggest key for Havili's potential combination with the rest of the team - time.

In Canberra's only pre-season trial, Havili tackled well but his timing on a few passes was off.

Fixing issues like that can only come with more matches together. And if Havili can string it all together, his next goal is clear.

"I'm here to fill a role for the team, but for myself it's an opportunity to secure another contract, and if I do that's a success for me this year," he said.

"For myself there's an opportunity to help my family out. I know myself there's potential to be the player I can be but I've had a few hurdles in the past holding me down.

"This is an opportunity for myself that I must take."

Blake Austin has struggled to replicate his 2015 form.
Blake Austin has struggled to replicate his 2015 form.

THE HALVES

Canberra's halves pairing of Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer has had a chequered two seasons together in the capital.

Austin claimed five-eighth of the year honours in his first season with Canberra in 2015, but has struggled for consistency in the two years since.

Likewise, the talented Sezer has been patchy since arriving from the Gold Coast in 2016, and the halfback admits he hasn't been at his best during his time at the Raiders.

With both players off-contract, and the club signing Ata Hingano and Sam Williams to boost their depth, Hodgson's injury is an opportunity for both to take control of the side and show they can be the players they've long promised to become.

"Actions can speak louder than words. Touching the ball more, being more of a presence on the field," Sezer told The Daily Telegraph.

"I guess there's a correlation there with leading players and how much they touch the ball.

"With halves, I think quantity brings more quality in your game. But talk is cheap, you can talk as much as you want.

"We need action, and that's one thing I'm working towards this year."

On paper, Sezer's slick passing and kicking game seems to perfectly complement Austin's run-heavy style and at times the two have looked like world beaters.

Aidan Sezer has been named to start at five-eighth for the Raiders.
Aidan Sezer has been named to start at five-eighth for the Raiders.

The pressure is especially on Sezer this year to assume Hodgson's share of organising in attack - a task the 26-year old feels he's well suited to.

"It's probably my style to play, to be more of a dominant half," Sezer said.

"I've found it a bit tougher down here cause there's so many leaders in this team and so many dominant players.

"I'm working towards that, I feel like I've made a few strides in this pre-season to becoming the player I know I can be.

"I've done it before and I want to do it here as well. Actions speak a lot louder than words.

"I can stand here and promise the world and it doesn't really matter - you've got to deliver.

"That's what I want to do."

A possible move to hooker has even been discussed and Sezer spent some time there in the trials - but he made it clear he prefers to stick to the halves.

"I've never played that position before and it was foreign to me but if it has to be done it has to be done.

"If the coaching staff think I'm a good fit there then so be it, I'll do my best there.

"We've spoken about it. My preference is to play half. I think I can get the best out of myself this year playing half."

THE REST OF THE SQUAD

Canberra are built a little differently to the rest of the teams in the NRL. Where most clubs rely on their spine as the primary creators, the Raiders have ballplayers and gamebreakers all over the park.

The likes of Joey Leilua, Jordan Rapana, Jarrod Croker, Josh Papalii and Elliott Whitehead all have the ability to be creative in a way many players in their positions do not, in some cases with ball-playing before the line, in others with their offloads.

Stuart has put out the challenge to all his players to lift and cover for the absence of Hodgson, not just the halves, and Whitehead in particular could be a big part of that.

The Englishman has great skills for a backrower, enough so to fill in at five-eighth at times in the past.

The Raiders are blessed with playmakers all over the park.
The Raiders are blessed with playmakers all over the park.

A possible move to lock would allow Whitehead more time at first receiver and potentially let him engage in more adlib play directly off the back of offloads.

"I'm not sure what Ricky's thinking heading into Round 1. If that's what I have to play then I'm willing to put my hand up, do that job and play that role," Whitehead said.

"I'm not going to be like Junior (Paulo) or Boydy (Shannon Boyd) where I'm just going to carry it up. I'd probably use my skills a little bit more in the middle, help the halves out.

"Hodgy's going to be a massive loss for us but I think it's going to take everyone in the team to give that extra 1%.

"I feel like we've got the capability to all work together and work something out where we won't show how much we miss him."


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