Today we got news we’d been expecting for a few days: Josh Hodgson won’t play for the Canberra Raiders again. A partial tear in his ACL, his third such injury in the last four years, means surgery and an end to his 2022. And so this is how it ends, not with glory or redemption, but with the cold precision of the surgeon’s knife.
Hodgson was always a favourite of these pages. The smartest Raider since Sticky, he dominated with his mind as much as skill or athleticism. A look here, a body alignment there, and it was all he needed to hoodwink defences. He could create something out of nothing, just because he saw the game more cerebrally than anyone else on the park.
And maybe that’s why I was so drawn to him. He compensated for all those insecurities I had from being athletically inept. He proved that thinking before you do was actually a useful tenet to operate off (cop that John Kennedy). Hodgo showed the game was more than just ‘wanting it more’. More than ‘natural talent’. More than just rolling the ball out and ‘letting the boys play’. To people that tarred rugby league as the human equivalent of a deer fight he was my example that there was more creativity and skill than they realised. Rugby league had its share of magicians. This game was beautiful too, even if the people paid to talk about it rarely described it as such. Watching him intently had a profound impact on my understanding of the game. Observing him work over an unsuspecting defender over the duration of a set, or a half, or a game was such a unique pleasure. I will miss it.
We were blessed to cover his entire Raiders career in these pages. To say he exceeded expectations feels woefully inadequate. All we knew of him before he played was that he jumped through that door. It turned out to be an apt metaphor, as he burst onto the scene like the Kool Aid Man had a northern English accent. The Green Machine before and after Hodgo were two different sides. Night and day. He took us to two preliminary finals and a grand final, being as big a part of Canberra returning to relevancy as literally any other person associated with the club. If you told me in 2014 the Milk would play in a grand final in the next five years and I would have fainted. Hodgson was a massive part of that. He became a club captain and a legend that hopefully will he remembered for years to come. He literally became hope for me.
Along the way we got to see some classic performances. The 2016 perfect game against the Tigers saw him produce one of the greatest games a dummy-half games ever played in the NRL. Later that year his performance in the first final against the Sharks was equally mesmerising, and if it wasn’t for an ankle injury in the second half of that game we might have talked about 2016 very differently. His return in 2018 turned a moribund team functional almost immediately. He was as good as any on the ground in the preliminary final in 2019, setting up a try and saving another. He was such a huge part of that success that it felt like he and the Raiders were going to be near-perfect together forever. Hell, we went went to the grand final under his leadership, and we had so much of the band coming back.
This crested in the first game back from the Covid break when we beat Melbourne (again) and talking heads started proclaiming him the best hooker in the game over Cameron Smith (a claim we would never make sober). But then the stunted growth of his pact with George Williams, another knee injury, and a ripple of complaints became a raucous chorus from fans keen on the promise of something new.
Hodgson then spent 2021 flailing as part of a squad that was woefully unprepared for the worst aspects of V’Landoball. The flare up with Sticky happened, the most public argy-bargy of something that had probably been happening a lot behind closed doors (particularly with English players). Even then he led the Raiders in try assists right up to the last few weeks of the season, despite not playing his preferred position. He instead demonstrated his footy brain by creating a role for himself through being the only person able to identify and fill function that wasn’t being filled.
But his time was coming to an end, like so many of the players of that magical 2019 team. Windows and careers are cruelly short in professional sport. He was shopped (and shopping) all summer and came into 2022 with a new club waiting, and promising one more year and a chance at redemption. The corner of my heart that still beats with optimism wondered if maybe the Raiders and Hodgson could…I can’t even finish that sentence. It feels as silly now as it was hopeful then. It lasted six minutes and he won’t get another to prove his worth to the Milk, and to Canberra.
I wish it could have ended better but it’s rare that the Raiders have these things work out. Mal Meninga got his fairytale, Lozza got a crowd, but often it’s been a sadder end than we’d hope. Sticky and Brad Clyde left in similar fashion to Hodgson. Many others were forced out by the salary cap dramas in the early 90s. Terry Campese was so upset at his dumping he didn’t attend the club’s presentation night. Jarrod Croker, arguably the club’s favourite son, is as often mentioned alongside the phrase “medical retirement” as he is “300 games”. Endings are bad because otherwise they wouldn’t be endings. I just wish every now and then we could have something nice.
Who knows where Josh goes from here. I’ve no doubt he’ll be ready for Parramatta next season. I hope his knees are. I wish him nothing but happiness and glory. For their part the Raiders have Tom Starling and my potential rebound, Adrian Trevilyan, both ready to handle aspects of the role. But as we said yesterday, the Canberra Raiders will miss Josh Hodgson. Just like I will.
Thank you Josh for providing us with affirmation and joy. Thank you for showing the world that rugby league could be as beautiful and worthy as any other pursuit. You will always be a favourite to me, and to many others. I’ll pour out a whisky tonight and think about how awesome it was to watch you work.
Goodbye Josh Hodgson. The pleasure was ours.
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