Life without Hodgson
Canberra Raiders skipper Jarrod Croker is going to wrap his arms around his winger Nick Cotric to make sure the young speedster doesn’t feel the effects of ''second-year syndrome'' in the 2018 Telstra Premiership.
Croker has an affinity with the Tuggeranong Valley Dragons junior, who turned 19 in November, and not just because they share the left edge in attack.
''When I first started [in 2009] I was the same as him. I was 18 years of age and played pretty much a full season,'' Croker told NRL.com. ''But I had some talented players around me like Joel Monaghan and Terry Campese and Josh Dugan. That really helped me, having those experienced heads around.
''So what I want to do is continue to help Nick by supporting him, backing his decisions. And if he does happen to make a mistake, he knows I’m right there to give him a cuddle and tell him to keep going hard.
''He's going to be around the game for a long time. He will have mistakes, but we all do.
''He’s a very level-headed kid. He took it all in his stride this year and not much fazed him.''
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart is also mindful of what Cotric faces now rival coaches have had the chance to scout the Dally M Rookie of the Year a little better. They needed to. He scored 16 tries in 24 games, made 17 line breaks, and a staggering 135 tackle busts during a superb 2017.
''Nick is the man on everyone’s lips at the moment in regards to the great season he has had,'' Stuart said. ''But those people who are pumping him up and are so fond of his game will be among the first to criticise if he drops off.
''So it’s my job to make sure there’s support around Nick because this season will be very tough for him. He will be targeted more. He will have more pressure on him, different strategies used against him.
''Yet the good ones will find another level, another kick in their game. I think it will be a really defining year for him. I won’t let any adversity affect him.''
Cotric and right winger Jordan Rapana combined for 37 four-pointers in 2017 – a tally exceeded only by Melbourne duo Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr (42).
''Mate, they’re tough players – very strong players,'' Croker said. ''Those two guys were up the top of the try-scoring list and we didn’t play finals football for those extra games.
''One debuted as an 18-year-old so it was pretty special. I’m just happy he’s on the wing outside me. Joey (Leilua) and Jordan on the other side, and Jack (Wighton) out the back, we’ve got a pretty good backline there at the moment. And we’re locked in a for a few years as well.''
Thanks in part to Croker’s nine tries and 77 goals, Canberra were third in point scoring – beaten by the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos.
But Canberra finished 10th – two wins outside the top eight. That the Raiders lost six games by four points or less, including three by two points or less, makes Croker cringe.
''We don’t want to look back on it too much as it’s done now. But there’s obviously areas we want to improve because we’ve learned some lessons,'' he said. ''One of those is tight losses. We lost about four in golden point and another one or two on the buzzer.
''At the time we probably – as individuals and as a group – thought it would just turn around for us like it did in 2016.''
That was the year they finished second on the NRL ladder and came within 80 minutes of the club’s first grand final in 22 years – losing the preliminary final to Melbourne.
''Those close losses hurt us. When you’re relying on a lot of results at the back end of the season, then you’re making it tough for yourself,'' Croker said. ''We lost too many tight games in 2017.''
Croker said the Raiders did plenty of pre-season work 12 months ago around having to make crucial decisions and execute plays under stress and fatigue.
''We just have to work on it again and do it with even better concentration this pre-season. We’ve definitely got the cattle there to score points,'' he said.
One change will be the voice of Australian coach Mal Meninga, who is taking up a mentoring role at the Raiders in 2018 now he is returning to Canberra to live.
''When you get someone you can call on like the Test coach and one of the best to ever play the game, then you grab that opportunity to learn,'' Croker said.
''It’s good to see he’s still forever a Raider. So when he’s around the boys everyone knows to listen and ask questions. It’s a massive boost for us.
''We’ll be taking as much of his advice as possible and build a relationship with him. I’ll be chewing his ear off with my pen and paper and trying to get as much out of him as I can.''