MAROONS coach Mal Meninga has hailed Justin Hodges as one of the greatest centres Queensland has produced after the Broncos skipper announced his retirement from rugby league.
Two months after helping the Maroons to Origin glory in his interstate swansong, Hodges has decided the 2015 season will be his last as he chases his final dream – skippering the Broncos to a premiership.
Meninga remembers Hodges’ remarkable career better than most.
He was coach of Canberra when Broncos counterpart Wayne Bennett blooded Hodges as a 17-year-old against the Raiders on a freezing Monday night in the nation’s capital in 2000.
Fifteen years later, their careers have gloriously intersected – Meninga as Queensland coach, Hodges as the Maroons stalwart who has played a key role in the state’s charge to nine Origin series wins in the past decade.
Hodges played his 24th and final Origin game in Queensland’s record 52-6 rout in this year’s decider, prompting Meninga to rank him alongside Maroons centre greats Steve Renouf, Gene Miles and Greg Inglis.
“Justin is up with the best centres I’ve seen, and that includes the Origin arena,” Meninga said.
“People like to be judged by their peers in a positive way and Justin is as good as I’ve seen.
“He loved putting the Maroon jersey on and he just loves competing which you need at Origin level.
“I’m proud of him and thrilled with what he’s achieved. Hopefully he moves on to bigger and brighter things.”
Hodges, who crossed five times for Queensland, finished his Origin career in style, landing his one and only conversion as Maroons fans went berserk at Suncorp Stadium.
But there was a time when Hodges feared his tenure in Maroon would be one of the shortest in history.
The 33-year-old endured a nightmare Origin debut in 2002, throwing loose in-goal passes which led to two NSW tries.
Hodges was subsequently axed, but fought his way back the following season and has been a fixture ever since with the Queensland juggernaut.
While Hodges’ natural talent was never questioned, Meninga paid tribute to his mental toughness after the strike centre battled numerous injuries throughout his career.
During his 15-year journey, Hodges suffered incessant hamstring tears, shoulder and knee reconstructions and twice ruptured his achilles tendon.
“He’s overcome a few hurdles in his time,” Meninga said.
“But he’s handled it fantastically. He’s been a fantastic servant to Queensland, the Broncos and Australia.
“Most importantly, he’s a great team man, has a great sense of fun and he will leave the game how he wants to leave.
“I had a conversation with Justin (during the recent Origin series) and my suggestion was giving away rep footy, but if he still felt he could make a vaulable contribution to the Broncos, then play on.
“But Justin clearly feels the time was right. He is very honest and down deep, you know when it’s time mentally and physically.”
Hodges, who has 244 NRL games and could finish at season’s end with 250-plus, had another 12 months to run on his Broncos contract, but didn’t want to let the club down.
“The body is breaking down, it’s not as fast and mobile as it once was with so many big injuries,” he said.
“It’s always better to go a year too early than a year too long. Some days it’s hard to come to training and I never wanted to feel like that. I love playing football and training with my mates but I knew the time was right.
“As a player I’ve never wanted recognition, I just wanted to make myself and my teammates better and I didn’t want to let them down. There’s no bigger accolade than your teammates knowing I would turn up for them.
“I just love competing, getting out on the football field and playing well for the wonderful fans at the Broncos and Queensland.
“I never thought I would come this far – a boy from Cairns with a big dream.”
Meninga said Hodges’ right centre spot for Queensland would be filled next season by either Will Chambers or Dane Gagai, who was outstanding on debut in this year’s Origin decider.
“They will both be in the mix,” he said.
“It’s a matter of having a look and a sit down and see how they go. They both play right centre and were great for us this series, so I’d imagine they will be right centre and right wing next year.
“It could go either way. Will could be right centre with Dane on the ring wing or they could swap around. It’s a nice headache to have.”