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Why Hodgey’s still at the top of his game

This story originally appeared in 2014.

Luke Hodge was voted the L’Oreal Men Expert Best Captain at the AFL Players’ MVP Awards earlier this month and will play his 250th game in the Grand Final on Saturday. Hawthorn veteran Brad Sewell, who has played alongside Hodge 169 times throughout his career, explains why the Hawthorn skipper is more important to his side than ever.

Inevitably, as senior players age, key parts of their game begin to fall away. A player will find he can’t kick as far, jump as high or run as fast as he did when he was in his early twenties.

‘Hodge is as valuable without the ball in his hands as he is with it; he’s never been as important to Hawthorn as he is right now.’

But often as these features start to diminish, a player’s understanding of the game heads in the opposite direction. Players become smarter, have a stronger desire to win and understand how to better deal with all the little extras that accompany the life of an AFL footballer.

Luke Hodge is at a point where he’s yet to really lose any of the physical attributes that have made him a great player, but his footy brain is also more developed than ever. On the field, he’s as valuable without the ball in his hands as he is with it; he’s never been as important to Hawthorn as he is right now.

Everyone knows he’s a fearless competitor on the footy field – a player who won’t take a backwards step and is prepared to push himself to extremes to get the result the team needs. His attack on the contest can’t be questioned. This has always meant that when Hodgey gives instructions, players listen unconditionally. While it’s important to have players who follow your lead, it’s paramount to be able to provide valuable feedback. Hodgey certainly does that.

It’s a great luxury to play alongside someone as versatile as Hodgey, who can play as a forward, defender or midfielder. But better than that, he’s omnipresent on the field – no matter which section of the ground he’s playing in. If he’s in the backline, I’ll still notice him having an effect on me and the rest of our midfielders. He has fantastic vision, an ability to see what’s about to unfold before anyone else does and always directs players to a position where they can either get the ball or prevent the opposition from getting it.

AFL 2014 Rd 15 - Hawthorn v Gold Coast

His improvement as a leader has mirrored the progression of our playing group – particularly our leadership group – in recent years. As well as obviously being older, we’ve all learned a lot from our on-field experiences.

It’s always a huge challenge for reigning premiers to maintain the hunger the year after they’ve won a premiership. We were in a somewhat fortunate position this year, where many of our players had experienced what happened in 2009 – the season where we missed the finals, having won the flag a year earlier. With that in mind, we entered the 2014 season acutely aware of any warning signs that might have suggested our high standards from last season were slipping. As captain, Hodgey has always been the first to pull people up if he notices any lapses.

‘we entered the 2014 season acutely aware of any warning signs that might have suggested our high standards from last season were slipping’

We’re also in a privileged position at Hawthorn to have two premiership captains. Hodge and Sam Mitchell are two very different people – and that was always reflected in their leadership styles – but if I had to put my finger on the biggest difference between the 2008 and 2013 Premiership captains, I’d point to the support each of them received from their teammates. Put simply, we have a much more mature leadership group now than we did when Mitchell was the skipper.

In 2008 Mitchell, Hodge and I accounted for half of our leadership group. All three of us have benefited from the extra six years of experience we’ve had since, and the likes of Jordan Lewis and Jarryd Roughead have had far more experience playing in finals and big games than anyone in our 2008 leadership group had.

So while Hodgey sets the standard, it’s very much a two-way dynamic and he’d be the first to admit he’s learned a lot from those around him. It’s a similar story when it comes to our values outside match-day – Hodgey speaks a lot about doing things for other people, putting yourself second and your teammates first.

That kind of two-way relationship is important, particularly for the young players settling into the club. They know that while Hodgey’s a footy icon, he’s not untouchable when it comes to being the butt of a gag or two. He can be a bully at the best of times, and loves giving the young boys a bit of stick, but when they work up the courage to give a bit back, Hodgey cops it with a smile. Brad Hill and Jack Gunston stand out as two of the young blokes who don’t mind hanging it on Hodgey from time to time; even though he’s got no ego whatsoever, he’ll usually find a way to dish it back in spades.

In a few weeks I’m likely to see a bit more of that side of Hodgey – one I know all too well, having roomed with him on footy trips and interstate games over the years. Although he is notoriously a ‘one hit wonder’ when it comes to the footy trip, it’s probably a good thing that side of him stays behind closed doors.

I won’t see that side of Luke Hodge for another couple of weeks and when that time comes, if all goes to plan, he’ll be a dual Hawthorn Premiership captain. Our boys have got a huge fight ahead of us before that happens, but there are plenty of factors in our favour. For one, there’s no better captain to follow out onto the MCG than Hodgey.

Read Luke Hodge’s thoughts on the next generation of Hawthorn stars here.