IT doesn’t seem that long ago Trent Hodkinson was posing for a Newcastle Herald photographer at Fort Scratchley, with a cannon labelled “No.1 gun” as the backdrop.
Hodkinson had recently arrived in Newcastle and the mood was overwhelmingly optimistic.
Having collected the 2015 wooden spoon, the Knights needed a playmaker to provide on-field direction and leadership, and the incumbent NSW Origin halfback seemed as good a candidate as any.
The former Manly and Canterbury halfback did not come cheap.
The three-year deal he signed with Newcastle made him one of the highest-paid players in the club’s history, and that’s without including the $200,000 the Knights were reported to have forked out as a sweetener for Tyrone Roberts to join Gold Coast.
Hodkinson arrived too late to save the man who recruited him, Rick Stone.
Stone was sacked six rounds before the end of the 2015 season and never got to realise his vision of partnering enigmatic Jarrod Mullen alongside Hodkinson at Newcastle’s scrumbase.
On paper, at least, the Mullen-Hodkinson combination appeared a match made in heaven.
Mullen was a left-foot kicker, whose strength was his running game, rather than his organising.
At times the pressure of steering Newcastle around the field seemed to overwhelm him.
Hodkinson’s greatest attributes were his reliable distribution, his goalkicking, and above all his cool head in big games – best evidenced by his matchwinning try against Queensland in game two, 2014, which clinched NSW’s only series win in the past decade.
Together Mullen and Hodkinson, with their contrasting but complementary skill sets, apparently had the potential to become Newcastle’s best halves pairing since the legendary Johns brothers.
As it panned out, they played just 14 games together, for one win.
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Plagued by hamstring injuries in 2016, Mullen tested positive to a banned steroid late that year and received a four-year suspension.
Hodkinson, meanwhile, endured his own unexpected challenges.
Having played in four separate play-off campaigns and Canterbury’s 2014 grand final loss to South Sydney before joining the Knights, he now found himself in a team trapped in the competition cellar.
Even worse, after being named Newcastle’s lone captain at the start of 2017, midway through the season he suffered the indignity of being dropped to to reserve grade.
That he was able to regain his NRL spot, and help the Knights to consecutive wins against St George Illawarra, the Warriors and Parramatta, says much about Hodkinson’s character.
A lesser clubman may have whinged and become a negative influence. He took his medicine like a man, mentored his young teammates in NSW Cup, and emerged with his reputation enhanced.
Off the field, there has been no better role model or ambassador in Newcastle’s history. As well as visiting children in hospital on an almost weekly basis, Hodkinson attracted national attention last year when he chaperoned terminally ill 15-year-old Hannah Rye to her Kurri Kurri High School formal, a story that was as sad as it was uplifting.
It is hard to imagine anyone having a bad word to say about Hodkinson, yet the bottom line is that rugby league is big business these days, and there was little future for him once Knights coach Nathan Brown signed both Connor Watson and Mitchell Pearce from the Roosters.
A chronic knee injury that limits Hodkinson’s ability to train with his teammates has not helped his cause. Yet the 29-year-old has strung together 104 NRL games, and six Origins, in the past five seasons. In his time at the Knights, he missed only one game through injury.
His decision to sign with Cronulla, after a large portion of his salary was reportedly pre-paid by the Knights, is a commonsense outcome.
Diplomatic as he has been, Hodkinson clearly believes he still has something to offer.
At the Sharks, maybe he will get that opportunity. As was the case at Canterbury, he will be surrounded by a strong, experienced team, allowing him to concentrate on doing his job, without being the main man.
In his own, understated way, he has a point to prove. Nobody should begrudge it if he succeeds in doing so.