Manly rookie feared for his life
He proved again on Saturday night that he is by no means out of his depth among the ranks of the NRL but Manly rookie Jayden Hodges has told of a terrifying off-season ordeal that for a split second he thought would be the end of him.
Having made the move from Townsville where you can't even swim off The Strand for fear of the sea creatures that lie in wait, Hodges was enticed onto a boogie board out off Sydney's northern beaches and almost didn't make it back in.
But if you had any doubts as to the courage of the little No.9 who will face up against Kiwi international Issac Luke in Friday night's Qualifying Final against the Rabbitohs, know that he is already preparing to conquer that fear when the Sea Eagles' season eventually comes to a close.
"I tried boogie boarding once and I got caught in a rip so I said, 'That's it, those waves are too big for me,'" Hodges recalled. "That rip, I was scared for my life and luckily there was a surfer close by and he told me to swim parallel to the beach and I got out of it.
"It was in the off-season; a few of the boys know how to surf and took some of us new fellas and tried to teach us. It's a bit too cold there at the moment so hopefully get a board in the off-season and just a bit of spare time, get back in the waves."
Getting back on the board is an apt metaphor for this week's assignment as he endeavours to bounce back from a disappointing defeat at the hands of the Cowboys in his first 80-minute performance in five NRL appearances to date.
Showing his hand by taking a dart out of dummy-half late in the very first set last Saturday night, the Cairns Kangaroos product probed around the ruck all evening and was solid in defence, running for 81 metres and making 49 tackles.
In many ways it was difficult to watch for Cowboys football manager Peter Parr who tabled a three-year offer to Hodges last year that was ultimately rejected in favour of a move to Manly.
Just 19 years of age when he made his NRL debut, Parr said the club had high hopes for his future at the club and was disappointed to see him depart.
"Despite outlining the career path we thought he had here and offering what we considered a good three-year deal he decided to go anyway," Parr said.
"We always had it in our head that Jayden could be our long-term hooker, we wanted him to do that, our offer reflected that but he chose to go to Manly.
"That was really disappointing for us because we wanted him to stay but that's his choice and we left on good terms.
"He's a terrific young bloke, we enjoyed having him here and he's a very good footballer."
Despite his limited NRL experience a lot rests on Hodges' young shoulders following the fractured leg suffered by marathon man Matt Ballin that will sideline him until the Grand Final at least, should the Sea Eagles get that far.
Since joining the club Hodges has worked closely with Ballin in raising his game to the standards expected by those who represent Manly Warringah and admitted that there is pressure to play at the level of the high-quality players that surround him.
"There's always that pressure but again it's how you deal with it," said the 20-year-old cousin of Broncos co-captain Justin Hodges who featured in the Cowboys' final three games of 2013, including the Elimination Final loss against the Sharks.
"Geoff just wanted me to play a bit of footy and to try and simplify my game as much as possible, not to overcomplicate things.
"Manly's such a great team, there's so much strike and so I just had to do my job in the middle, that's all I hard to do really.
"Ever since I came to the club Matty's been really good and took me under his wing in a way. He's just taught me the little things that help your game and just working for the team like he does every week.
"I watch him closely and he always turns up for the boys and for the team and that's something I really admired and tried to model my game on, just trying to turn up every week and do the little things right.
"Matty's been a big help and when we get back to training this week I'm sure he'll be helping me to improve for next week."
Following the retirement of Aaron Payne and the loss of James Segeyaro to the Panthers, Hodges was very much viewed as a long-term No.9 at the Cowboys and the door remains open should he ever wish to return north.
But even after his off-season scare and a season spent predominantly in the NSW Cup with a struggling Sea Eagles outfit, Hodges says there are no regrets about making the 1700 kilometre journey from Townsville to Manly.
"There were no second thoughts. I sat down with my partner and we laid out the pros and cons of moving and it's the best decision I think I've made, leaving the north," Hodges said.
"Just to be in that team environment and the team standards are so high and working with the quality coaches they've got there, it's definitely improved my game.
"No second guesses, I'm really happy with the move I made."