Now that Trent Hodkinson is on the verge of his career with the Newcastle Knights, it’s worth looking back on his partnership with Josh Reynolds as one of the most memorable halves pairings in recent times, both in their stints with the Bulldogs and with the Blues. In fact, so much synergy did they have as a halves pair that it was a bit bewildering to Bulldogs fans – me included – when Hodkinson announced he was moving to Newcastle, especially since he didn’t seem to have anything like the same calibre of partner in Jarrod Mullen. Sure, Mullen may be a more experienced player, but building a halves rapport takes time, and often pays the highest dividends when the pair have started working on their relationship from a fairly early point in their career. For Bulldogs fans, the decision was doubly disappointing in that Reynolds and Hodkinson were well on the way to being the biggest New South Wales halves pair in some time after their performance in the 2014 Origin season – a prospect that may return depending on how the Mitchell Pearce situation pans out– which would have cemented a growing connection between the Dogs and the Blues, providing Canterbury-Bankstown with a little bit of the Origin spotlight and momentum as well.
At the same time, there’s something appropriate about Hodkinson choosing Newcastle as his destination, since what was appealing about him and Reynolds from the outset was the sense that they were underdogs, especially when it came to Origin, where they only got a chance to play because Mitchell Pearce’s supreme star power momentarily waned in the aftermath of the Kings Cross incident. Although Origin supposedly represents the very best that New South Wales has to offer, it also operates as a celebrity system, especially with the Blues, whose lineup is far less assured and stable than the Maroons, and it was quite possible that smaller-name players like Hodkinson and Reynolds could have played out a couple more years of their career without even being considered for Origin. Even now, it’s extraordinary to hear how some commentators have bemoaned the possibility that Pearce won’t play for Origin this year – it’s an indication of his celebrity power that his fairly mediocre Blues performances have tended to eclipse and forestall the possibility of other halves pairs making it to the front of the New South Wales pack. While halves like Aeynolds and Keary, or Brooks and Moses, may still be fairly green, they’re likely to be more inspired at this point in time than Pearce and whatever Roosters half Daley might choose to place him with. I’ve got a bit more to say about Pearce in an upcoming post, but for here it’s perhaps enough to point out that certain teams seem to have a particular cache when it comes to Origin as well, with the Roosters’ brand power often seeming to ensure that second-rate players like Daniel Tupou are picked for New South Wales berths they can’t fill with any consistency. There’s always been something a bit improbable, then, about the synergy between the Blues and a team like the Tigers, just as there was something improbable about a Bulldogs halves pair coming up from behind to win it for New South Wales in 2015.
Of course, as naysayers will point out, those two victories in Games 1 and 2 were only possible because Cronk was out of the picture for the Maroons. When he returned, the Queensland triumph was so decisive that it felt as if they were the true Origin winners of the year, and New South Wales had taken away the shield on a technicality. In that sense, the Blues’ Origin victory, and the Blues’ Origin year, peaked after Game 2 – nothing they have done since has regained that high, which was a massive release for New South Wales fans after a decade of waiting to get some of their pride back again. For anybody watching the game, it was Hodkinson and Reynolds who engineered and communicated that excitement and relief, for a couple of key reasons. Firstly, their halves work actually contributed a great deal to the victories in each case, as did Hodkinson’s perfectly placed kicking game. Secondly, as newcomers on the field, Hodkinson and Reynolds didn’t seem touched by the disappointment and despair that has racked virtually every other veteran Blues player’s face over the last decade and Origin. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they were still inexperienced enough at Origin – and perhaps inexperienced enough within the NRL – that their excitement at putting on the New South Wales jersey was barely containable. That excitement would already have made them the two most engaging Blues on the field, but when they realised that New South Wales was starting to get ahead against all odds, and that they were instrumental to that effort, they seemed to spend the game in a state of continual surprise, incredulity and astonishment that was epitomised by Hodkinson’s try and conversion in the first game, which constituted the Blues’ only two points. Although there were definitely iconic moments in each game, most announcements of the New South Wales victory tended to focus on either Hodkinson, Reynolds or both in a state of extreme astonishment – bordering on shock – while the tabloid media, in particular, took photographs of them embracing, hugging, almost kissing, indulging in the homosocial fringes of League that normally remain unspoken but were somehow allowed for this most redemptive of New South Wales halves pairs.
As a result, Hodkinson and Reynolds suddenly found themselves the most visible halves pair in the competition, which must have been slightly disorienting, especially since both players often give a sense of being slightly stunned or disoriented on the field as well, which is what made them so well placed to express the collective astonishment of Origin 2014, as well as what makes them so deceptive to whatever team they happen to be playing against. For this is one of the most clinical and organised halves pairs of recent times – or would have been, if Hodkinson had remained at the Dogs. While Mbye has certainly come into his own in recent years, and seems to already have a strong rapport with Hodkinson, there was a special synergy between these two that made them a halves pair for the ages. More than any other two players on the NRL field, halves have to have chemistry, a charismatic connection, which is one of the reasons that Daley and Meninga prefer to pick halves pairs for Origins who have already got to know each other through club footy. Both on and off the field, it was clear that Hodkinson and Reynolds had this rapport – in the way they spoke to each other in interviews and in the way they spoke with the Steeden as well. Of the two of them, Hodkinson was the more cautious player – and one of the most cautious and conservative kickers I’ve seen in a long time – but his reticence was more than balanced out by Reynolds’ cheekiness, which in turn was prevented from every turning into more antisocial tendencies by Hodkinson’s sense of discipline as well.
While it’s something of a cliché to say that opposites attract, there nevertheless was a sense in which these two players captured the two characteristics necessary for a halves pair. On the one hand, Hodkinson was good at setting up passes, orchestrating offloads and, of course, kicking, while Reynolds was good at responding to unpredictable scenarios and utilising Hodkinson’s strength in unconventional and unexpected ways. While the halves may not literally be the forward flank of the team, in some sense they are the first line of defense insofar as they have to form the most unified front, playing as a single entity more than any other pair in the team. As a result, the vibe and attitude of a halves pair can do a lot to establish the tone of a team as a whole, and the combination of assurance and attitude, control and unpredictability, that Hodkinson and Reynolds managed to exude turned the Bulldogs into the force needed to make it to the 2014 Grand Final, while their particular brand of playful assurance also helped Canterbury-Bankstown put in a dignified and brutal performance despite the massive media bias on the side of Souths. While I more than understand why most pundits in the NRL universe – and many outside it – wanted Souths to win, there was something about that massive groundswell that put the Dogs at a distinct disadvantage. Playing the Rabbitohs in the 2014 Grand Final wasn’t simply like playing a regular footy team at their home ground, it was like playing a national footy team at their home ground, with the entire nation seeming to swell behind the Bunnies and back their victory as a milestone in Australian sport more generally. In such an intimidating atmosphere, Hodkinson and Reynolds’ poise and charisma went a long way towards allowing the Dogs to rally around each other and make the best of a bad situation.
At the same time, Hodkinson and Reynolds’ legacy for the Bulldogs stretches way beyond the 2014 Grand Final as well, since in many ways they feel like emblems for the post-2010 Bulldogs era. During this time, the team’s moniker was changed back to the original “Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs” name, in an effort to distance itself from the disastrous “Bulldogs” of the early 2000s, while retaining some continuity with their extraordinary achievements on the field as well. In many ways, I’ve often thought of Michael Ennis as a transitional figure from this Bulldogs outfit of the mid-2000s to the current Bulldogs outfit of the mid-2010s. Obviously, that’s partly because he captained the team during much of this time, but it’s also because of the way in which he consciously cultivated a niggly persona in his role as captain as a kind of diluted and deflected version of the attitude that made that earlier brand of Bulldog so powerful and so catastrophic at the same time. For Dogs fans in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it was important to retain some sense of that earlier attitude, if only as a defense against the widespread disavowal of the team that occurred across the NRL community, a perception that was undoubtedly also prompted by racist perceptions that Belmore was becoming too “ethic.” While Hazem El Masri’s game and performance was one prong in the Dogs’ defensive rebranding, Ennis’ reputation for niggling – and his perfection of the art of niggling – was the other prong, with the result that I tend to think of Ennis and El Masri as the two key figures during this intermediary position at Canterbury-Bankstown.
Since then, El Masri has retired, while Ennis has moved to the Sharks, where his niggling has abated somewhat but not entirely, partly because Cronulla-Sutherland have tended to replace Canterbury-Bankstown as the team most in need of defensive strategies when it comes to their disavowal and ridicule at the hands of the competition in general. At the same time, however, their legacy has remained at Belmore, especially in the peculiar rapport between Hodkinson and Reynolds, whose dynamism often seems to capture these two qualities that made El Masri and Ennis so great. Granted, neither of them are at the level of an El Masri or an Ennis in terms of ability – not yet – but in terms of their charisma they’ve managed to take the best of both players and forge it into something new. At his best, El Magic felt like an international player, while Ennis was also an important Origin representative, so there is also something about Hodkinson and Reynolds’ achievements for the Blues that makes it feel as if they’ve carried on the wider representative potential of the Dogs as well. And if there is any advantage to be gained from Hodkinson’s movement to the Knights, ir’s probably in the way in which it will force Reynolds to step up and take even more of his cues from Ennis. In particular, Ennis will hopefully continue to provide an exammple to Reynolds of how to keep his niggling under control – how to niggle without sledging – helping him restrain his playful cockiness just enough to make him viable for captain in a couple of years (and there’s no current Bulldogs player who’d continue and extend Ennis’ captaincy signature as well as Reynolds). Still, it’s hard not to pause and wonder what it would have been like to see Hodkinson and Reynolds as co-captains, since that’s what they really were at their best.