For more than six years he’s been known as the game’s finest centre but Brisbane and Queensland legend Justin Hodges’ title is now under threat, with Canterbury and NSW back Josh Morris revealing he’s gunning for the crown.
Morris’ public ambition makes for an enthralling match-up on Friday night as the battling Bulldogs try to rediscover their winning ways against the Broncos at ANZ Stadium.
Last year’s Dally M Centre of the Year, Morris revealed while he held Hodges in the highest regard, his personal aim was to usurp the Bronco and throw his name into the reckoning as rugby league’s best three-quarter.
“[Hodges] has been one of the best centres for Australia and in the world for five or six years so it’s certainly something I aspire to be,” Morris, a three-time Kangaroo and a five-time NSW Blue, told NRL.com.
“It’d be nice [to become the best] but I’ve got to continue to work hard and develop the whole aspect of my game. I’m slowly working week by week, but he’s been so consistent in his performance. He’s been consistent now for five or six years.”
Hodges’ expected return for the Broncos, last-start winners against the Gold Coast and currently sixth on the premiership ladder, will buoy Brisbane’s spirits, but Morris says the man regarded as the NRL’s best sledger won’t distract him as last year’s grand-finalists search for a winning formula.
This week’s match – Morris’ 100th for Canterbury – sees the return of Hodges from a rib injury; the Bulldogs centre views the challenge of marking the 15-Origin and 13-Test representative as a “great opportunity”.
“It’s a challenge I always look forward to,” Morris, likely to face-off against another superstar Greg Inglis in the Origin series, says.
“Being the Australian centre, every time I get to play the Broncos it’s a great opportunity and I’m sure he looks forward to these clashes as well.”
A prolific talker, Hodges regularly attempts to get under opponents’ skin, as former Blues hooker Danny Buderus can attest. Morris, though, isn’t worried, insisting the two share a healthy dose of admiration for each another.
“[Sledging] has never really affected me, to be honest,” Morris, tryless since Round 26 last year, says.
“I don’t take too much notice of that. I try to focus on my own performance and worry about the team. I don’t get caught up in any of that stuff. That’s how I play the game.
“The only time we really get to catch up is when we play with the Aussie team but I think there’s a mutual respect there… we definitely enjoy playing against each other and we will for the next few years as well.”
The 13th-placed Bulldogs are desperate to claim victory this Friday night, especially after last week’s capitulation at the hands of the Knights just as the club had seemingly returned to form. Canterbury trailed just 12-8 at half-time, before Newcastle piled on 32 unanswered points in the final 40 minutes. Morris, though, insists they’re putting the pitiful effort behind them.
“It’s very important after last week’s second-half performance we turn it around and put in a good performance against the Broncos who had a big win against the Titans and they’re going to be full of confidence,” Morris says.
“We need to forget about what happened last Sunday and start really well and have a full 80-minute performance against the Broncos.
“I guess [the Knights loss] is just one of those things we didn’t see coming. It was quite disappointing. We spoke about it briefly but have completely forgotten about it and have turned our focus completely to the Broncos. It’s just about hard work to turn it around. We did a fair bit of defence early in the week and our attack’s looking good at training. We’re really happy with the way the week’s turned out.”
Morris’ Bulldogs have won just four matches all season – victorious in just one of their opening six games – but the Kiama junior believes the tough opening to 2013 has taught the team some valuable lessons.
“There were probably a few different factors,” Morris says of the poor beginning to 2013. “We had a really hard start to the draw and we knew it was going to be tough but we were expecting to win some of those games and we lost by six points or less. If we could have won some of those games we’d be in a completely different position… the competition’s really close at the moment and if you string a few wins together you can easily find yourself back in the eight.
“We need to improve a fair bit. Our ball control this year has been pretty bad – three games we only completed 21 sets or so and when you’re getting 20 sets against quality opposition sides they’re just going to roll you.
“[Coach Des Hasler] isn’t too pleased… but neither are we. We know we’ve got a squad capable of winning any game so we haven’t been happy with our performances either.
“We don’t want to be, come September, sitting down watching finals football on our TVs in our lounge rooms. We want to be a part of that.
“It’s all about completing our plays, getting into set-for-set football and grinding teams away rather than giving away too much ball and hoping for a win.”