Josh Hodgson of the Raiders will play against the Roosters this weekend in the NRL grand final. (AAP: David Rowland)
Englishman Josh Hodgson looks like an ordinary footballer.
But behind the Raiders hooker’s rugged nose is one of rugby league’s best brains.
He leads the league in strips — where a defender literally strips the ball from the attacker — by an outrageous margin.
And it’s due to his ability to adapt to a rule change brought in last year better — in fact, much better — than anyone else in the competition.
What happened to the strip?
From 2014 to 2017, total strips in the NRL tallied somewhere between 40 and 60 per season, around two per round on average. Then, in 2018, the NRL changed the rule.
Before, if a group of tacklers made contact with a player, a strip was prohibited during that tackle. It was a true “one-on-one” strip rule.
From 2018 though, a strip was allowed as long as there was only one defender involved in the tackle at the time of the strip. That meant if multiple players were involved in the tackle but then dropped off, a strip could still occur.
The change increased strips immediately — up to almost 70 per year in its first season.
But it only became a talking point when the Englishman systematically used it to destroy the minds of ball carriers in Australian rugby league.
Harking back to the 1970s and 1980s, when strips were allowed at any time, strips for the season are now up to 118.
Behind the bright idea
Hodgson has taken the ball from attackers 14 times this year. The next-closest player has five. Two of Canberra’s other English imports, Dally M team of the season second rower John Bateman and Elliot Whitehead, are also in the competition’s top 10.
The Raiders have a secret code. Defenders jointly slow down the player, before a signal is provided and they drop off. Then it’s left to Hodgson to rip the ball away.
It’s obvious opposition players can’t react quickly … and don’t react well.
Confusing for some, the tactic has proven devastating for Hodgson’s team.
Following four of his last six strips, the Raiders scored a try on the ensuing set, including the first try in last week’s win over Souths.
Focus on this weekend
Hodgson credits an old coach for the tactic, and wonders why more teams don’t use it.
But one of the loudest critics of the recent rule change is Roosters coach Trent Robinson.
He is the man in charge of the team standing in the way of an unlikely Raiders premiership win in the grand final on Sunday.
After a Raiders-Roosters tussle earlier in the season, he sarcastically described the rule change as a “bright idea”.
“Honestly, has that added to the spectacle of the game?”
The Roosters have been talking all week about how they’re preparing for the onslaught of strippers this weekend.
With “little techniques to practice”, according to forward Angus Crichton.
And by “being aware” of players like Hodgson, said Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.
But if Hodgson continues his lucky strip streak, there may be little they can do.
This is the second of a series of video and trend-driven stories about rugby league. The other was on Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s uncanny ability to escape from the in-goal area.
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