One of the NRL’s finest – and most tumultuous and eventful – careers will come to an end in 2015, after Justin Hodges revealed on Monday he is set to retire when the Brisbane Broncos’ campaign concludes.
The 33-year-old has been increasingly affected by injuries during his 16-season first grade career, but Hodges will be attempting to go out in style by captaining the Broncos to Grand Final glory.
It’s been a hell of journey since the wide-eyed Cairns product debuted for the Broncos as a 17-year-old in 2000. A desire to play fullback – where Brisbane No.1 Darren Lockyer was considered the world’s best – was behind Hodges’ decision to sign with Sydney Roosters, but it also saw him controversially dropped from first grade by Broncos coach Wayne Bennett before the 2001 finals.
A year later he was a Grand Final winner with the Roosters, starring at centre – a position he would eventually become regarded as one of the all-time greats in.
Injuries and discipline issues soured the remainder of his tenure in Bondi, but Hodges’ return to the Broncos fold in 2005 proved his making. He was vital to the club’s ’06 premiership triumph at fullback as Karmichael Hunt worked his way back from injury, producing a string of stellar performances that also led to a belated Australian Test debut.
Hodges has been a consistent spearhead for the Broncos during the nine years since the club’s last Grand Final success.
Among the game’s most niggly characters and notorious sledgers, Hodges frequently drew the ire of opponents, fans, referees and the judiciary. His off-field conduct has not always been exemplary and he has been forced to conquer multiple demons. But his unique game-breaking talents ensured he was always regarded as one of the most valuable players in the code, while he has always worn his heart on his sleeve and has developed into a respected leader.
It’s impossible to look at Hodges’ career without considering the impact injury has had. A knee reconstruction cut him down midway through 2003, a snapped Achilles wiped out his entire 2010 campaign, and his 2013 season ended prematurely when the other Achilles went, while hamstring problems have dogged him for years.
He has not made more than 19 first grade appearances in a season since 2006.
But Hodges’ courage and determination in fighting back from a succession of devastating setbacks, and also in the constant management of the aforementioned ongoing complaints, has been among his most admirable qualities.
Barring injury, he would have played far more than his 24 Origins and 13 Tests, but he was a superstar on the rep scene – although it appeared Hodges may become just another ‘one-game wonder’ after a horror debut for Queensland in 2002.
He was subsequently dropped, while he suffered the season-ending knee injury in the ’03 series opener, and he was dumped in favour of Willie Tonga after one game of the ’04 series. But he has been automatic selection when fit since 2006, joining the likes of Meninga, Miles and Inglis in the top echelon of the Maroons’ greatest Origin centres.
Hodges featured in six series successes, fittingly bowing out in Queensland’s record decider demolition job in July. Only 14 players have ventured into the Origin cauldron more times for the Maroons than the fiery three-quarter, while only Meninga has done so more times as a centre.
During a lamentably disjointed Test career, Hodges starred in the Kangaroos’ 2006 Tri-Nations and ’09 Four Nations victories, and never finished on a losing side in a green-and-gold jumper – a fact that should have been ringing in the national selectors’ ears after they ludicrously left him out of the Australian side that was trounced by New Zealand in May’s Anzac Test in favour of debutant Will Chambers.
Hodges is five games away from reaching the 250-game mark in the NRL, while he is only one try short of 100 in first grade. Again, both figures would be far higher if misfortune had not intervened so regularly, but the quality of his performances has rarely been queried.
It was a sign of the esteem the Indigenous gun is held in that returning supercoach Wayne Bennett ignored the credentials of former skipper Sam Thaiday and incumbent Corey Parker to install Hodges as the Broncos’ 2015 captain. He’s played a vital role in the club’s spectacular resurgence, despite familiar injury and suspension pit-stops.
The rangy Hodges’ loping running style, elusive ball-carrying, peerless dummy-half running, deft passing skills and aggressive defence have rendered him one of the NRL era’s greatest centres – if not the best of the lot.
He now has the opportunity to emulate the likes of Norm Provan, Peter Provan, Ray Price, Mal Meninga and Glenn Lazarus as players who have retired as captain of a Grand Final-winning side (Terry Lamb and Kevin Walters also achieved the feat, before coming out of retirement for their respective clubs the following season).
Hodges is a hero to thousands, and an anti-hero to just as many – particularly south of the border. He has enjoyed precious few periods of plain sailing during his career, while enduring countless instances of heartache.
But one thing is for certain, regardless of what unfolds before the end of the season: he’ll hang the boots as one of the modern greats.