By STEVE MASCORD
HAD Hull Kingston Rovers not tried to extend their contract with hooker Josh Hodgson some 18 months ago, he might be still playing for them.
You read that right.
The 26-year-old returns to Canberra this month for his second season a player transformed. From a solid first-teamer in Humberside who’d had a taste of international football, he kept the legendary James Roby on the bench for the entire winning series against New Zealand.
One popular narrative is how he’s still breaking down barriers a year after smashing through a door at a Dunedin student dorm.
But had the Robins not tried to secure him to a long-term contract in the middle of 2014, Hodgson’s career may have not taken the series of left turns that has him a bona fide rugby league A-Lister heading into the coming season.
“I’d always expressed my feelings to Hull KR that if I’d got my chance to go to the NRL, I’d go,” says the affable Yorkshireman, taking a seat in one of the many lounge areas at the plush St George’s Park Hotel at Burton-on-Trent.
“I’d spoken to them about it previously and I think I’d signed up for another two years. They said ‘why don’t we tie up a new deal and we’ll try to write out the whole ‘you going to the NRL’ clause? We’ll sign a new deal and kick that to the curb so we know we’ve got you for this set period of time’.
“We started negotiations into a new deal for quite a length of time and we probably nearly had it sorted out until my agent told me that Canberra was interested.
“I think they enquired about me.
“Ricky (Stuart) asked Nathan Brown how I went and I think he gave me a good wrap. Then, from what Sticky tells me, he watched a couple of our games and liked what he saw, liked how I played, and just approached my agent to see if I was available and obviously my agent contacted me and told me what the interest was, to see what I wanted to do … whether I wanted to keep negotiations going with Hull KR and probably play out my years there, to be honest, or whether I wanted to go ahead with the dream and go and test myself over there.
“As soon as it came up, I kind of knew what I wanted to do. I’ve got quite a good relationship with the chairman in Neil Hudgell at Hull KR. I sat down with him and had a chat with him and he was good about the whole thing.”
Normally, we’d now be moving on to 2015 and Hodgson’s industrious 24 appearances for the green machine. But we’ve still got a few, um, doors to go through first.
He knew the conversation would get there eventually.
So, England have just been eliminated for the 2014 Four Nations…
“It was at a party. There were holes in the door. The people at the party said ‘we’re getting a new door Monday’. Then someone decided to shout ‘why don’t you run through it?’ They said ‘you might as well, we’re getting a new door Monday’, If the people who owned the place were telling you you might as well do it .. if I’d had my time again I obviously wouldn’t have done it but …..”
Josh Hodgson became a misbehaving NRL player before he was an NRL player.
“We all flew back to Sydney and from Sydney I went to Canberra and they all flew home. We had another night there (in Dunedin) as well.
“I was definitely serious and down and probably hating life a little as well. Just a lot of regrets.
“It got blown up out of proportion. People made out that we trashed the place and it was nothing like that. I don’t want to go into detail too much. It was a mistake and you learn from your mistakes. That’s what everybody does, as a player and as an individual and as a person in life.
“I spoke to Sticky the next morning, He just said the same as you – what happened? I told him what happened. I said ‘what do you want me to do?’ He said ‘we’ll wait until you get back to Canberra’. When I got to Canberra, he said ‘just be honest. Say exactly what you just said to me, tell them what happened and we’ll wipe a clean slate, get you ready and looking forward to training, get you settled in here’.”
It took a couple of weeks for Hodgson, who knew almost before he could walk that he’d be a rugby league player, to get over being in the Aussie headlines.
Then there was a new hurdle: self-doubt.
“It was all really unknown and as much as I’d played four or five years at Super League level I was … not doubting myself but your confidence levels do drop a bit. You do think ‘am I good enough, am I going to make it, will I get in the team at Canberra? Will I make a success of myself over here? What’s the pace of the game going to be like? There’re just so many questions that go around in your mind. You don’t know how you’re going to adapt to that kind of league and that kind of intensity every week. It was a tough time, especially at the start. Mentally it tests you. You’ve got to stay strong in yer ‘ead and back yourself and work hard. (That) is the main thing I definitely had to do. I just had to knuckle down and believe in myself and really put in the hours.”
“The intensity in training and the competition for places was definitely another level. The amount of fighting we had between people itching to get that starting jersey for round one and right through the year the competition for places … the guys that were playing at Mounties the majority of weeks and the guys that were playing first team, we had to do opposed against each other and it used to get pretty full-on because everyone’s trying to impress Sticky and trying to get their name on the team sheet. That was definitely an eye-opener for me and it does bring out the best in ya.”
By the time father Dave and mum Nikki arrived in the national capital for round one, however, their son had the nine jersey in his keeping.
“They came for the first four games and they really loved it. They probably didn’t want to leave, if I’m honest.
“I love Canberra. I think it’s a fantastic place. My mum and dad did as well. It does get a bad rap but I don’t know why. I think it’s just because Aussies like beaches. I ain’t a fan of beaches so I’m alright.”
By the end of the season, our man says, he was a completely different player to the one Rovers had tried so desperately to sign for the rest of his career.
“Decision making has improved in leaps and bounds. My creativity has come a long way through playing in a different competition, just my experience in general, just playing against different opponents. The intensity and the game speed and all that over there, in all areas, I’ve really upped it to another level.”
And while there is a perception in England that the NRL is full of robots, Hodgson says: “Creativity is massive over there – definitely where I’m playing. If there’s a quick play-the-ball I’m going and everyone’s flooding around me and just trying to push off the back of that and as people were saying all year at the Raiders, we’ve played some really good footy this year. I’d say 90 per cent of our tries came off the back of off-the-cuff plays.”
“I think he was more of a fighter than a rugby player! He was more of the roughnut, or so the stories that he tells me go. He probably plays himself up a bit. He tells me he was the roughnut they sent on if there was another roughnut in the other team, maybe to try and sort him out.
“He isn’t the best looking bloke in the world so I’m guessing he came off second best a few times.”
Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK