New focus for veteran Bronco Hodges

Justin Hodges refers to it as an old running joke although, truth be told, it wasn’t really a joke at all.

Long before he emerged as one of the NRL’s pre-eminent centres and a long-standing member of this dominant Queensland State of Origin side, Hodges was known as the bloke that would disappear from training whenever conditions became a bit tough.

“Yeah, I used to get out of a bit more of the fitness work than the other boys,” the veteran Bronco laughs when asked about his own suggestion that he used to be somewhat lazy on the training paddock. “I wouldn’t say it was laziness, but whenever we were doing fitness and it was raining or cold, the boys used to joke that ‘Hodgo doesn’t train’.

“That sort of stuck and everyone ran with it, but that was all in the past. Now every time it rains or gets cold I man-up.”

Hodges has come a long way since those early days, when he seemingly went out of his way to avoid going by the book.

Simple maturity had a lot do with that, although the 30-year-old also points to the retirements of a number of long-serving Broncos – particularly Darren Lockyer – as having heavily influenced his approach in 2012.

When Hodges crossed for that crucial, albeit controversial, try late in the first half of the Origin decider last week, it was not only a man determined to make his mark but also a sign of the greater responsibility he has taken on back at the Broncos this season.

“It (leadership) is definitely something I’ve thought about this year,” he says in the lead-up to Brisbane’s crucial clash with the Warriors at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night. “When you lose classy players like that – especially Locky who was our leader for a long time and the guy we looked to when things got a bit tough – everyone has a responsibility to fill the void.

“Obviously we got Petero back this year who is an outstanding leader too but Sam is a young captain so guys like him and Corey [Parker] and Peter Wallace, we sort of had to step up and fill that void that Locky left. You can’t replace a guy like that but we all put our hand up and lead the young guys by example.

“So yeah, for me, that just comes with maturing. I’ve played a lot of footy and have been around a long time now. I want to keep playing good footy. We’ve got heaps of young boys coming through the club at the moment so for me it’s just a matter of helping those young guys and making sure they stay on track.”

And what better man than Hodges, who has never been short of keeping the headline writers busy, to offer his wealth of experience.

After all, while he stands as a proud Bronco through and through these days, and is quick tell his young team-mates the virtue of staying loyal, it’s because he once walked out on the club that he appreciates all he has now.

It was late in 2001 when, according to the super-coach himself, Hodges betrayed the great Wayne Bennett by signing a three-year deal with the Sydney Roosters – then upset Roosters management too when he realised it was time to head back just a few years later.

Despite the controversy of his movements, Hodges believes the experience played a significant role in his on- and off-field development.

“I don’t regret anything,” he explains. “The guys at the Roosters were tremendous. In my three years there we made three grand finals and I won a comp at a young age so I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I made some great mates that I’ll have for life.

“But obviously Sydney was a bit too big for me and the lifestyle wasn’t really me. I wanted to come back and be around my family and I think that’s when I play my best footy. When you’re happy off the field everything falls into place on the field.”

Hodges polarises opinion. South of the border, he is widely despised by the Blue side of the Origin divide who point to his heavy hit on a prone Brett Morris during last year’s finals series and his call to instigate a stink after Steve Price was knocked out in game three of the 2009 State of Origin series as evidence of his ‘Enemy No.1’ status.

Yet he is adored by team-mates and the passionate Queensland army who recognise the fact he is a fierce competitor who bleeds maroon.

“At the end of the day we’re out there to play footy and to win,” Hodges explains. “What happens on the field stays on the field. Most of the time things happen in the heat of battle. Everyone loses their cool and over-reacts but in saying that we’re all good mates away from the footy field. On the field you’re there to do a job. You’re there to win.”

Asked how he would like to be remembered when he eventually calls it quits, Hodges replies: “Just as a guy that was always committed… always wanted to win and always gave his best for the team. That’s something I’ve always believed in.

“Every time I put the jersey on I want to do it with pride for the guys that have come before me, I want to play well every time. When your team-mates want to play with you, that’s the best compliment you can have.”

That Hodges is in the best form of his already glittering career – one that boasts two premierships, 12 Tests and 14 matches for Queensland – remains an ominous sign for Brisbane’s opponents as the countdown to the finals begins, although it should come as no great surprise. Thanks largely to that greater focus on training he speaks about, the powerful centre is fully fit and injury-free for one of the few times in his 13-season career.

“I’m very happy,” he says. “Obviously the off-season was pretty tough. Like most clubs you get flogged but for me it was a bonus because I was able to do the whole pre-season and get through it and obviously it’s great to come into the season fully fit and ready to go like that.

“But that’s why I wanted to put a lot more into my training this year.

“There were probably a few things in the past. Obviously last year and the year before I was carrying injuries each week, so I would probably only train once or twice a week going into the game. It wasn’t the best recipe for me.

“I would come off a high in a game where you’re doing heaps, then you do nothing for three or four days and you’re back playing another game. There were things there… I just wasn’t getting enough running in during the week. That probably contributed to my injuries as well.

“But the other thing with maturity and everything, when you’re young you think you’re bulletproof and can get away with anything – but as you get older and you take all the hits you’ve done over the years… the injuries… as you get older you get wiser and realise you need to look after yourself a lot better.

“That’s what I try to do these days.”

Hodges has never had a great deal of luck with injury, having undergone a knee reconstruction in 2003, shoulder reconstruction in 2008 and sitting out the entire 2010 season after rupturing his Achilles tendon.

That last experience was particularly shattering with Hodges labelling it the single most difficult year of his career, yet ironically it could also prove to be the period that prolongs his life in the NRL.

Contracted for two more years with the Broncos, he isn’t yet ready to call that the end, saying: “Having a year off from footy with my Achilles freshened my body up a bit so I’m hoping that will put a few more years on top of the back end of my career.

“I’ve still got two more years left at the club and hopefully by then I’m still playing great footy and the club still wants me to stay. I love playing this game – it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed.”

And the motivation to succeed remains as strong as ever, too.

“There are still a lot of things I want to achieve,” he says. “Playing for Queensland is a massive thing for me. Every time I put on that jersey it means a lot. I don’t want to give it up.

“With the guys we’ve got in that team, we’ve all built great relationships, we get along so well and the culture we create every time we get into camp, I always look forward to getting in there and getting started.

“I’m also really enjoying watching all the young blokes come through at the Broncos. You saw during the Origin series, those young blokes played really well (for Brisbane). They stood up and wore the jersey with pride, so it’s important that us older guys show them the way. They are some of the most talented guys that have come through the club in a very long time.

“But the main thing for me is that I want to win some more comps. That’s what I play for and it’s why I put the jersey on. I haven’t won one for about six years now so it’s been a long time. It’s that burning desire to get back to the top and hopefully win another grand final.”