Anyone who was at NIB Stadium last night will remember the evening for many years to come, in spite of the rain tumbling down and the bungled post-game presentations. It was a night to celebrate on so many levels.
First of all the Western Force destroyed a hapless Waratahs side across the park. The Force hammered home the fact that they are indeed the second best team in Australia. There will be some who will argue that they were in fact better than the Brumbies on the paddock, as both teams finished the season with six wins and nine losses; however the Brumbies booked their place in the Super Rugby finals by acquiring more bonus points.
Credit must go to the coaching staff in particular Dave “Blood” Wessels who in his first season in charge has turned the Force into a truly competitive side. Sure there were games where the team had you shaking your head in frustration, but doesn’t any team you support do that? There were games they lost that they should have won. There were games they made hard work of winning. However, finally they fulfilled many fans hopes that they could be competitive and could win their conference.
If this is the last game that the Western Force play it will stand out in a season that saw many stand out performances by individual players over a season. It saw the boys from the West finally reduce the number of mistakes they made and pounce on every one the opposition made, and came away with points. The Waratahs, who the wise men on the East would have you believe are the cream of Australian rugby were never in this match. That is how far the Force have come.
Then it will be memorable for the farewell to a man who truly does deserve to be called a club legend, Captain Matt Hodgson.
Prior to the game, in one of the many interviews that Hodgson gave, he said he knew that he may not be as talented as other players but he made the decision that he would make up for that with his fitness and commitment. Has there ever been a more committed player? When other flew the coup he opted to stay. When the club’s future was in doubt he wept at a press conference at the thought of his son being deprived the opportunity to play this great game.
Hodgson may have been born in Sydney, he may have started his rugby journey on the Central Coast and progressed to Sydney and played in the Australian under 21’s and Sevens teams but it was when he made the move across the Nullarbor he found his home.
He played in the Western Force’s opening match against the Brumbies at a packed Subiaco Oval and in that inaugural season he won the award for the player who best reflected the clubs values on and off the pitch. That was a sign of things to come. Hodgson literally bled for the club.
It is no mean feat for an athlete to come from over East and win the hearts of the Western Australian public. Hodgson had all the attributes that Western Australians love, he was completely committed to their cause, he never hid when things became tough and he wore their colours with pride.
His last game could not have played out better had a scriptwriter sat down and come up with the plot. The last game of the season at home against a team he was signed up for when he was a teenager, but who never gave him a Super Rugby start. He would score probably the easiest try of his 140 Super Rugby games. Then in the final minute when the Force won a penalty in front of the posts, the crowd rose to its feet as one chanting his name, demanding that the player who started as a fly half in his younger days convert the penalty. Which of course he duly did as the siren sounded.
The rain fell, and many of the crowd stayed to farewell a great servant. It didn’t matter that the post match celebrations were a complete dog’s breakfast and poorly orchestrated, the fans were there to farewell “Hodgo.”
Once the speeches and presentations had been made, many would have headed to the changing rooms for a beer with their mates, but not this leader of men. Hodgson started a lap of honour around the stadium in the rain. He posed for photos and must have signed hundreds of autographs, but as the true champion he is he gave every person his time, and made them feel special.
As a young boy with Down’s Syndrome told the retiring Captain he was going to take his place next season, Hodgson looked him in the eye and said “That’s why I am retiring, there is no way I could keep up with you.” Over an hour after the game had finished, and visibly shivering in just the kit he had just played in, Hodgson was still giving to the fans, the lifeblood of the club.
There is no doubt he will be missed, but those who saw him play, those who were fortunate to meet or talk to him are likely to never forget those moments, and no one who was at NIB stadium will forget Saturday night.
Hopefully an announcement will be made soon that the Force, currently Australia’s second best side, will remain a part of Super Rugby, and hopefully the leadership that Matt Hodgson has shown can be found a place at the club as it moves forward, into an new era without a man who has become the epitome of the Western Force. A man who has battled against the odds, and in his own modest words lacked ability, but succeeded through determination, dedication and an unbridled commitment.
If all, both on and off the pitch, can match those values the team and the game has a bright future in Western Australia, in Australian Rugby and in Super Rugby.