As Western Force champion and Club games record holder Matt Hodgson prepares for retirement, fellow Force Team of the Decade player and former teammate Cameron Shepherd has paid tribute to a man whose dedication and work ethic will forever define his legend.
Hodgson has played 139 Super Rugby games for the Western Force since joining for their inaugural season in 2006 alongside Shepherd, and as he prepares to lead his team into battle against the Waratahs on Saturday night at nib Stadium he does so knowing he will retire as the 9th most capped Australian in Super Rugby history.
However, as Shepherd explains, that didn’t look all that likely a decade ago when he was out of favour with then-Force coach John Mitchell.
“The majority of players had a run-in with ‘Mitch’ at one time or another, and ‘Hodgo’ was no exception,” Shepherd explains. “At the end of 2006, David Pocock had arrived and Hodgo was finding it hard to cement his spot within the team. He seemed to be either not in the squad at all or a utility forward off the bench.
“We had a little joke within the team that if you had gone from being a regular starter to not being picked at all you were called the ‘Rocket Man’, and at that point we said Hodgo was the ‘Rocket Man’ as he was somewhere in orbit until Mitch decided to bring him back! In a serious sense, at that stage of his life he was probably considering what his other options were besides playing at the Force.”
Fast forward eleven years and only Hodgson and Pek Cowan remain from that squad. Shepherd has no hesitation in suggesting that Hodgson’s personality is almost single-handedly responsible for his longevity in the game.
“I think Matt would be the first to admit that his natural talent was never going to be enough to carry him to the heights he wanted to reach,” Shepherd says. “He knew it was going to be important for him to work exceptionally hard on his game, his skills and his strength and conditioning.
“Watching him at the Force on a daily basis for six seasons, Hodgo taught absolutely everybody how important work ethic was and that is what made him a great leader. It was every day with the same attitude, and that was incredibly motivating. He never let something such as not being selected affect his effort. He trained just as hard as ever, he forced his way back into the team and every opportunity he had, he succeeded.
“That resilience is why he has lasted so long as not just a professional but a leader within the game.”
Shepherd and Hodgson first met at the Waratahs, where Hodgson trained for a couple of years without getting an opportunity, however he made an impression on Shepherd the very first time that they played on the same team.
“Even back in 2003, I was so impressed by his physicality and his demeanour on the field. He set the standard constantly, whether it was at training or in a game, and it wasn’t hard to pick up that vibe from him straight away.
“The first game I ever played with him was for NSW A at Concord Oval and it was also the first time I had ever seen him play. I was on the bench as he went into the breakdown, and then next thing you know he came running over missing his two front teeth; I quickly realised that he does like to throw his head around. Looking at all the scars on his face now, it’s pretty evident he has been doing that for his whole career.”
Hodgson garners universal respect from fans and teammates alike across Australia, as Shepherd can attest.
“Hodgo is a guy that sometimes plays his cards close to his chest, but if you get to know him and he opens up he is a pretty funny guy. Instantly when we met, we built a good rapport. Hodgo gave you energy; knowing how much adversity he had to face to become a professional Rugby player, and how hard things had been for him, it was always so inspiring that he had an incredible attitude to want to work hard and get better.
“It’s been a pretty tumultuous twelve-year journey for the Force, and there’s been both a lot of positive and negative things that have happened on and off the field along the way, but the fans have always found Hodgo so relatable. He is a great working-class man. People in the west see that he came over here chasing an opportunity, was down on his luck and did everything he could. Now he has risen to be the games record holder of the side, had his two children in Perth and married his Western Australian wife!
“To the people who live in the most isolated city on Earth, for them to look at him and see somebody who carries himself so well has made him the favourite son of the Force.”
The uncertainty of the Western Force’s future is the elephant in the room as we celebrate the achievements and retirement of their favourite son. On April 10, the ARU announced that either the Western Force or Melbourne Rebels would be axed from the competition at the end of the season, with a decision due within 48-72 hours. Still now, over three months later, we await a verdict to an action which RUPA is fundamentally opposed to, and which the ARU are finding increasingly difficult to justify.
Shepherd believes strongly in the retention of five teams, but more than anything is angry at the emotional turmoil the players and staff at both teams are experiencing through the ARU’s inability to cull a team, based primarily on the legal ambiguity around whether indeed they can be removed at all.
“I don’t know where to start (when talking about it),” Shepherd said. “I have so many different emotions on this topic, but what I find so frustrating is the way it has all been handled. What they have done to both the Force and the Rebels has been so poor and so damaging to the game.
“I realise it is a business and needs to be successful, but the way it has been handled should be reviewed no matter the outcome and if a team is actually axed. A complete review into the structure and the running of the ARU needs to be done, and I think that can be done from the board all the way down through the whole organisation.
“Speaking about the Force specifically, anybody who has spent time in Perth would have experienced what the Force can do and the affect they are having on the game in Western Australia. The kids that are coming through, and their love for the game, is better than it has ever been. I know the crowds need to be a bit better, and that comes down to results too, but they are developing more professional players than ever before. How can you just turn your back on something like that and remove it without the proper analysis?
“I think about all of the people who have been involved with the club and what they have done, not only over the past thirteen seasons but from when they decided to set up the team, and if the Force are axed then all that hard work, dedication and sacrifice is going to be in vain.
“The biggest issue in Australian Rugby nationwide is keeping people interested and if the Force are not in the competition this is just going to make it far worse.
“I think we are doing the wrong thing, I think we are stronger as five, and if that’s not the way they end up going it will be a very sad day for Australian Rugby.”
If the Force do remain in the competition Hodgson will stay on as an Assistant Coach, and he will also continue to build his F45 gym empire and work as an ambassador for mental health charity LIVIN when he hangs up the boots.
“I don’t want to give him any tips for life after Rugby; I think I should probably be calling him for advice!
“Even while he has been playing, he has done better at preparing for life after football than most,” Shepherd says.
“Matt Hodgson will make a fantastic coach; he has already been coaching for the last half of his career anyway, and he has a great rapport with the players who respect him enormously.
“I think Hodgo will be fantastic in his transition out of it, and staying connected to the game is the best possible thing he can do and he is a great ambassador for the game on so many levels. Keeping that connection to Rugby in some shape or form is really important.
“I think that the hardest part for players leaving the professional environment can be not having your best 30 mates around you every day, that can be really tough. It’s important that past players stick together and you’ve just got to remember that all the guys who are a few years ahead of you out of the game are always there to support you if you ever need it, and so are RUPA.”
And as for this Saturday night, when the final whistle goes?
“I injured my wrist and I didn’t realise I had played my last game for the Force, so Matt is lucky enough to have the build-up of knowing that the 80 minutes is coming and to enjoy it. For Matt to appreciate being out there doing what he loves with his good mates for the last time will be awesome. I would tell him to just savour it as best he can.
“No matter what happens that 80 minutes will evaporate very quickly so he needs to just remember how special the moment is. I think that if I were him...
"I would be staying out on the field mingling with the crowd until the very last person has left the stadium.
“There is nothing better on earth than being a professional sportsman; I really believe that. We get to do what we love, get paid for it and do it in front of a lot of people, and Matt has done an excellent job of it.”
Matt Hodgson Fact File:
- Born: 25 June 1981, Sydney
- Super Rugby Caps: 139*
- Super Rugby Points: 90*
- Wallaby Number: 841
- Wallaby Tests: 11
- Wallaby Debut: vs. Fiji, 5th June 2010 (Canberra)
- Other Honours: Australia Rugby Sevens, Australia U21s, Australia A, Captained Australia vs. Barbarians (2014), Western Force Team of the Decade
- RUPA Board Member: 2013-2017