Chris Fagan knows what he wants from Luke Hodge. He wants a shepherd to guide his wayward flock on the field. He wants someone who will stand up and lead by example. He wants someone who will teach his players that it’s not about how many times you’re knocked down; it’s about how many times you pick yourself up and keep your eyes on the goal ahead.
Hodge will turn 34 next season. In the history of the game, there aren’t many, if any, players who improve at this age. The reflexes slow, the body doesn’t recover as quickly, the legs don’t propel you across the ground as fast. You’re just not the same physical specimen you were in your twenties. You’ve lost the proverbial step. The upside is you’ve learned a few tricks along the way. You’re smarter. You’ve gained wisdom. You use your body better in contests. You’re a little sneakier. You have to be, because you can no longer keep up.
In some players, there is another crucial component; the ability to lead. Some have it – others don’t. Some players compel their teammates to improve, to try harder and do the little things that, in turn, make everyone else better. Luke Hodge is one of these players, and it’s an influence the young Brisbane Lions desperately require.
Fagan’s time at Hawthorn served him well. He has the advantage of knowing what Hodge brought to the table with the mob from Glenferrie during his time there. He’s seen Hodge at the peak of his powers, his personality and his will to win rubbing off on those around him, and if there is a team that needs some of that, it’s either North Melbourne or Gold Coast…
But Brisbane needs it as well.
The change of scenery may be a good thing for Hodge, and the direct segue into an assistant coaching role will aid him on his way to what will almost certainly be a head coaching role in the future. Has there been a player in the modern era who gave more direction on field than Hodge?
Some might say Fevola, or perhaps the very vocal and demonstrative Heath Shaw. Perhaps it’s better to ask, has anyone given more constructive direction on field than Hodge?
Any footage of Hodge you’ve seen at a stoppage will show you his tactical mind at work. He’s surveying the terrain, marshalling the troops, and putting Alastair Clarkson’s defensive strategies into place. He’s as much a coach on the ground as any player in the league, but he’s had the benefit of a well-drilled and supremely talented group around him for many years. They actively recruited defenders like Josh Gibson, Brian Lake and James Frawley to hold down key positions whilst Hodge ran the show. He doesn’t have that in Brisbane. He has nothing of the sort.
At 34 years of age, Hodge will be forced to be an anchor in the back half. His role will be to make those around him better, and help them to walk taller – his presence alone does this, but who will help him? Tom Rockliff has walked. Schache is at the Kennel now. Both are big losses. Stefan Martin has made noises about going home as well but remains a Lion. It also leaves the great Daynes; Zorko and Beams, and precious little else. Hipwood showed promise, and has the potential to have a bright future, but Brisbane's list is far from impressive.
The Brisbane Lions have a long way to go before getting better, and as good as he is, and as good as he was, the recently ‘retired’ Luke Hodge is not the answer to their problems. He’s a Band-Aid, albeit a high quality Band-Aid, covering up a gaping wound. The bleeding looks set to continue for some time yet unless the Lions recruit some other big, strong bodies to help.
As a player, he’ll give them everything he’s got. Sadly, at this stage, it’s likely to be nowhere near enough. Hodge would be better off stepping into an assistant coaching role with the Lions and staying off the field. His reputation amongst the playing group will not be enhanced by performing as an ageing defender who isn't holding up his end of the defensive bargain. If his end goal is to coach, the stop-gap season or two in the Brisbane backline could be time wasted.
However, if the Lions are serious, and want to recruit more than just a wise old head - something like a hardened midfielder and a quality goal sneak, Hodge may end up enjoying his time in Brisbane so much that he stays a bit longer.