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Foggy memories: Hodges' ultimate triumph after debut of despair

From despair to the ultimate triumph, the Queensland Maroons career of Justin Hodges is a tribute to never being beaten.

It was 13 years in the making but when 24-game State of Origin hero Hodges walked off Suncorp Stadium a 52-6 winner in 2015 it was as one of Queensland's great centres of any era.

It didn’t start that way. In fact Hodges wondered after his debut in 2002 whether he would ever wear the Maroons jersey again.

As he goes on a journey through his stellar career it hits home just how much of a superb victory his ultimate rise to the top was.

Debut from hell

Hodges' Origin debut for Queensland in Game II in 2002 consisted of two passes inside his own in-goal area which led to New South Wales tries and a few other howlers. You can’t sugar coat it. It was a horror show. He’s never watched the game again, but some good came out of it.

"For me it was a real wake-up call,” Hodges recalled.

"You go through stages in your career where you maybe don’t treasure the jersey enough. I was only 19 and not knowing the full history of Origin football my preparation probably wasn’t great. I was probably too worried about thinking ‘oh my God I am here’ rather than trying to make a difference.

"I think it changed me as a footy player in that I never took things for granted after that. I thought after that game that I’d blown my chance of ever playing for Queensland again.

"The second game I played I did my knee so my first two games in the mighty Maroons jersey were not great, but they built up my resilience and determination to get back to that level and be one of the best players in that arena."

It is often forgotten the Maroons won 26-18 the night Hodges made his debut, but don't bother telling him that.

"The boys were yahooing after the game and they kept telling me 'we’ve won' but for me it was a disappointment because I felt like I’d let my family, friends, teammates and whole state down," Hodges recalled.

"You play your entire childhood as a kid in the backyard saying you are this person or that person and then to get the opportunity to put on the jersey and have that happen… it was probably one of the lowest points of my career. I didn’t feel like I had contributed enough to that win to celebrate.

"Me being a competitor and a winner, I thought I was just lucky to have great teammates who were able to go on and win the game, but for me didn’t feel like I did my part."

2006 return

By the time the 2006 Origin series had rolled around Hodges was 24. He’d won a premiership with the Sydney Roosters and was one of the game’s best club players, but was yet to make his mark in the toughest arena after playing just three games for Queensland in four years.

After losing Game I 17-16 Mal Meninga retained Hodges for the second game at Suncorp Stadium where he scored a length of the field intercept try and had a blinder in a 30-6 win. The Maroons, and Hodges, would go on to dominate for the next decade.

Hodges in maroon. Photo: NRL Images
Hodges in maroon. Photo: NRL Images

"That was the moment in my Origin career when I felt I was part of something and that I had earned my spot," Hodges said.

“It took me a while to understand what Origin means. I think sometimes you can take things for granted.

"In 2006 NSW was coming off three series wins in a row and people were saying some of our best players were too old so there was a lot of emotion in that series.

“We knew we had the players to take us to great heights. We had no idea that we were about to be a part of eight straight series wins but we believed we had players to take us to greatness.  That was the start of our dynasty."

Lockyer's last 

Hodges missed the 2010 series and opening two games of the 2011 Origin series after an Achilles rupture but was back for game three in 2011, which doubled as Darren Lockyer’s last game for Queensland.

He had extra motivation to play his part in a win, and he did exactly that with the Maroons prevailing 24-10.

"That was my first year back after doing my Achilles in 2010,” Hodges said.

"Obviously I had played a lot of footy with Locky and wanted to send him out a winner because I know that he would have done the same for me.

"That was special because I didn't just want to be in the team just because I had been before. I wanted to be more of a contributor than anyone had expected.

"It was a tough year because I wondered whether I would ever reach the heights I had before due to the Achilles injury, but I trusted in my ability and the process and had made sure the leg was one hundred per cent."

Fantastic finale

Family is paramount to Hodges so when he lost his beloved Aunt Cheryl before his final Origin game in 2015 it left a giant hole in his heart.

That loss, and knowing what his auntie’s final wish was, gave Hodges another level of motivation to make sure the Maroons prevailed in the series decider.

"I’d lost one of my closest aunties, dad’s sister, during the week so it was quite emotional when my cousin sent me a message of support knowing that she was watching me from above," Hodges recalled.

"It was a very special moment as well knowing that afterwards I was heading up to Cairns to bury her so to speak.

"Her last wish was for me to go out a winner and for Queensland to win as well, so it was special to know that I delivered that for her.”

Deliver he did, with the Maroons winning at Suncorp Stadium by a record breaking margin of 52-6 that still stands today.

Hodges in 2015. Photo: NRL Images
Hodges in 2015. Photo: NRL Images

"It was special to win  it in front of family and friends. My son Carter was only 18 months old, so there was a lot of emotion," Hodges said.

"You spend your whole life wanting to play Origin football for Queensland and the most pleasing thing is that I got to go out on my terms as well.

"The boys really put in for me knowing it was going to be my last game, and to beat NSW by the scoreline we did was just so rewarding. It was a moment you can’t plan for so it was very special."

Straight after half-time, with the Maroons leading 22-2, Hodges chased through a Cooper Cronk grubber and as he was going over the dead ball line flicked it back for Matt Gillett to score. It was a play which summed up his confidence and instinct as a footballer in one magic moment.

"When you go into half-time leading by a big score you can keep building or take the foot off the pedal and it becomes a close game,” Hodges said.

"That was a kick-starter and all about not giving up on the play. I knew there was an opportunity to flick it back and lucky enough Gillo was there."

The last thing Hodges did on an Origin footy was slot a goal. Johnathan Thurston had 18 points for the match, the equal highest with Lote Tuqiri for a Maroon in an Origin game, but gave his good mate a chance to end his Queensland career with a wonderful memory.

"If I’d known that I probably wouldn’t have taken it from him but JT being JT and a great teammate and team man gave me the opportunity to have a kick," Hodges chuckled.

"I was a little bit scared at first because there were two things going through my mind – don’t miss and don’t slip over and tear a hamstring.

"I tried to kick it as pretty as I could and I was lucky for it to go over."

Number four

Hodges wore the No.4 jersey for 19 of his 24 games for the Maroons and he became a regular centre.

"It has always been a good number,” Hodges grinned.

Hodges. Photo: NRL Images
Hodges. Photo: NRL Images

"Greg [Inglis] wore No.3 for most of his career but in 2006 he chose No.4, but I wore it mostly after that.

"A lot of great players had worn it before me so I wanted to make it my own. When people thought about the No.4 for Queensland I wanted to be regarded as up there with the greats of the past.

"I have always loved walking into the dressing room and seeing that number…and my name above it. Great players like Choppy Close had worn it in the first Origin for Queensland and guys like Geno [Gene Miles] after that so I wanted to do it justice.

"When you are talking about those guys you are talking about massive footprints in that Origin arena and I didn’t want to let them down, because I know as an ex-player when someone wears your jersey you want to make sure they are doing the right job, treating it well and living up to those standards."

Big Mal and GI

Hodges played for one of the greatest centres to grace a football field in rugby league Immortal Mal Meninga. He also played alongside centre partner Greg Inglis, an Immortal in waiting. When Hodges speaks about that duo it is with awe and respect.

"Being a centre myself I'd watched Mal play as a kid and he was a childhood hero," Hodges said.

"He became a massive part of my career and he believed in me and the Maroons side. He was a big part of why we were so successful because he put trust in his players.

"The best thing we loved about Mal was his honesty. If you weren’t playing well he’d tell you, but he stuck loyal to us because he knew we’d get the job done.

"His style of coaching was relaxed but being such a massive part of Origin history every word he said was like it was out of the Bible. I knew the big guy had been out there and done it all himself. All he wanted from us was to succeed and be a great team. He was a great coach for me and GI."

Hodges partnered Inglis in the centres for the majority of his career and the pair forged an unbreakable bond.

Hodges and Inglis. Photo: NRL Images
Hodges and Inglis. Photo: NRL Images

"We struck a very good friendship early in our careers and became best mates," he said.

"It was a privilege to share those moments on the footy field with him and watch the greatness that he possesses. When there were moments in games when we needed a big play, he stood up.

"In my last game he was a big part of that win. I remember saying to him all week, 'I can’t go out a loser', and his simple words were, 'I’ve got you bra, it’s all good'. I trusted him. When you have got football players like that beside you it is something special." 

Hodges today

Today Hodges works for the Beyond the Broncos program in schools where his advice and mentorship is tailored to encourage school attendance and Year 12 attainment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

"I love going to different communities and different schools to help our young kids become leaders in their own community and get a good education," Hodges said.

"The most important thing for me is to empower our young people to become strong Indigenous leaders and give them the courage to have a go in life, and realise that we were once sitting in their position as young kids with dreams to become a football players.

"We speak to girls as well and it is not just about being a footy player. It is about being a doctor, lawyer or CEO. It is about giving them that confidence to realise that we all had a dream once and we chased it.

"Being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we are very resilient and me and Scott Prince try and empower our people to go out in the big world and be successful."

Coaching dreams

Hodges is the Maroons assistant coach to Kevin Walters and has cut his teeth as head coach of the Queensland Under 20s for several years where he mentored them to victory over NSW in 2018. 

When he speaks, players listen, and he wants to one day transfer his coaching skillset into the NRL sphere.

"I want to be a head coach one day. It is something I have always wanted to do and I don’t think there has been an Indigenous coach win a [NRL] competition in history," Hodges said.

Coaching in 2019. Photo: NRL Images
Coaching in 2019. Photo: NRL Images

"That is my next goal in life. When I feel like I can’t be a part of the program I have for the last five years then my next chapter is to be an assistant NRL coach and then a head coach.

"I want to win a competition but also help young guys reach their potential.

"In terms of week-to-week footy Wayne Bennett was always a big believer in me. The reason he is so good is that he loves his players and his players love him. I never wanted to let him down.

"Ricky Stuart was the same and a great coach of mine for three years. He understood me. He didn’t try and change who I was as a person.

"Big Mal was the best coach I had in terms of that rep footy scene. He knew how to get the best out of me in a Maroons jersey."