It looked like an easy one but everyone who’s ever taken a kick with something on the line knows it wasn’t.

Halfway between the sideline and the goalposts is a death valley where good kickers are broken and great kickers are made.

A sideline conversion is difficult but everybody understands its difficulties. There’s so much glory to be had if you get it and little shame to bear if you miss.

Those inbetweeners are a nightmare by comparison, just easy enough to be incredibly hard if you’re not made of the right stuff.

Through the eight years of misery foisted upon them by the Queensland dynasty, the Blues had rarely found the right stuff when it really counted – until they turned to Trent Hodkinson.

It was ten years ago this month that Hodkinson became a New South Wales legend by scoring all the points in the 6-4 victory in Origin II that secured the first Blues series win in eight years, ending Queensland’s mighty dynasty.

As he stood over the ball after 72 minutes of blood and guts Origin footy, staring history in the face with the faith of seven million people on his shoulders, each of them hoping he could provide the finishing touch in slaying the Maroon demon, all while trapped in the shadowy zone that drives kickers insane, Hodkinson didn’t feel good – he felt great. 

He felt sure.

A man takes a kick at goal during an Origin match

In 2014, Hodkinson built his legend on making the right play when it counted the most. (Corbis via Getty Images: Steve Christo)

In fact, he swears he’s never felt better before a kick in his entire life.

“It was in a spot where you can usually get the pitching wedge out and chip it over but those are easy to miss. It’s more of a mental kick than a physical one,” Hodkinson said.

“But I have never been more confident over a kick than that one, people ask me how I was feeling, how nervous I was, but not one bit.

“If I see it now I get nervous watching it, even knowing the outcome – but on the night I knew it was going over.”

Back from the brink

The miracle of Trent Hodkinson and the 2014 Blues isn’t that it happened, it’s that it even had a chance to happen in the first place.

Just 18 months before the series began, Hodkinson was swapping between the casualty ward and reserve grade as his promising career threatened to go up in smoke.

A series of shoulder and knee injuries pushed him to the limit. He’d started an apprenticeship fitting sprinklers as a junior with Manly and at the end of 2012 he planned to leave this rugby league stuff behind to go back and finish it.

“I’d had enough, I was done. The decision was made, my family and friends rallied around me because they knew how much rugby league meant to me but I’d made a decision,” Hodkinson said.

“I picked up a book by Drew Brees called Coming Back Stronger, it was all about him coming back from a shoulder injury to get back to the NFL and that’s what saved me, it made me want to keep playing footy again.

“One of my boys is named Brees and every time I look at him I get a bit of motivation because it reminds me of the hard times you can get through.

“It might sound corny, but it’s legit and there’s real meaning behind it.”

A man is treated for an injury on a rugby league field

Injuries almost ended Hodkinson’s career prematurely. (Getty Images: Mark Kolbe )

Hodkinson got through 20 games the following season and looked to be a first grader again. Earning a new contract with Canterbury was a big deal and his goals for 2014 were as modest as wanting to repay the club for their faith in him. Origin may as well have been another universe.

“The Blues jersey was never on my mind, they had Pearcey (Mitchell Pearce) and he was the best half New South Wales had at the time,” Hodkinson said.

“He was so young himself, I thought that would continue for a long time and I was just happy playing footy for the Dogs.”

As Hodkinson rebuilt his career, Pearce and the rest of New South Wales were stuck in the toughest years of Queensland’s legendary run.

The Maroons eight-year supremacy can be broken down into three distinct eras. In the early years, from 2006 to 2008, Queensland were better but not by much. They had to fight hard for their wins, like most series prior in Origin history.

Things went totally off the rails for the Blues in 2009 and 2010 with Queensland winning five games out of six including a 3-0 whitewash in the latter year as the likes of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis all hit their primes as footballers.

The Maroons from those years can stand alongside any of rugby league’s greatest teams. They looked as though they were playing a different sport than New South Wales and when you take into account all the stars at their disposal, they pretty much were.

But 2011 to 2013 was a horse of a different colour as things settled into a maddening rhythm for the southerners. 

The Blues fought hard to rebuild themselves and pushed the great Queensland winning machine to the limit, which made the losses all the harder to take because there can be no true despair without hope.

All three series went to deciders with the latter two being decided by one and two points respectively. The Blues were often tantalisingly, infuriatingly close to winning, only for Queensland to make the key plays when it counted as they displayed a grace under pressure which seemed eternally out of reach for New South Wales.

Rightly or wrongly, Pearce became the face of those failures. He was the state’s halfback in each match for three series in a row alongside three different halves partners as the Blues searched for answers.

The New South Wales brass stuck with Pearce through many hard miles and very few smiles, convinced he could lead them to victory, but an off-field incident convinced coach Laurie Daley to go another way for 2014. And as the state searched for a new hero, Hodkinson was in the form of his life.

The born winner

Then, as now, Hodkinson has a very clear-eyed view of what he could and couldn’t do on a football field.

Those same knee injuries that almost ended his career robbed him of much of his pace. He couldn’t scythe through from 40 metres out and score, but he could pass, he could kick, he could think and he could win and through the early rounds of 2014, Hodkinson was doing plenty of all four. 

The Bulldogs were top of the ladder after ten rounds, due in no small part to the work of Hodkinson and halves partner Josh Reynolds – they weren’t perfect, but they were good together.

“Our styles of footy were good together, he was a headless chook running around, all energy,” Hodkinson said.

“He did all the things I couldn’t and he did all the things I couldn’t and to dumb it right down that’s all you want in a halves combination.”

The duo quickly established a reputation as excellent closers when the heat was on.

Two men celebrate after a field goal in a rugby league match

Reynolds and Hodkinson complimented each other beautifully.(Getty Images: Renee McKay)

“That’s when I felt most comfortable on the field, when it was golden point or we needed a field goal late or when the game was on the line. That’s a strange thing to say but it’s the truth,” Hodkinson said.

“I wasn’t the type of player who could break a game out of nowhere and score an 80-metre try, I could steer the boys around, get to a kick, essentially be another coach out there and make sure everyone was doing their job.

“But when those moments were upon me I wanted the ball in my hands, I knew I could get the job done be it a field goal or a conversion after the bell or a goal to put you in front late.

“Anything to do with that, I was always very confident. I can’t explain why, but that’s always how I felt.”

For a few weeks, Hodkinson could not miss. In the lead up to Game I, the Bulldogs won three matches in a row by a single point with Hodkinson hitting the winning field goal twice and Reynolds doing it once.

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It catapulted them both right into the mix and another close win, this time by four points over the Warriors in a match where Hodkinson set up the winning try, was enough to convince Daley to take a leap of faith on the reborn halfback and his junkyard dog of a five-eighth.

“On the way back from New Zealand, our assistant Jimmy Dymock, who was an assistant with New South Wales as well, mentioned the Blues. There’d been some whispers, but I still thought it was a gee up. When we landed in Sydney I first thought about it, that it could be real,” Hodkinson said.

“Laurie rang me the next morning and let me know. It was surreal. He asked if I was ready, I said I was.

“I never thought it would happen, I thought my time was done. You watch Origin and that’s the elite, that’s the pinnacle, those players are the best in the business.

“They’re all at their peak and I’d had so many injuries I thought I couldn’t last or keep up or compete like them. But it became a reality.”

Who let the duds out?

State of Origin time can double as hunting season and the press from both states can be merciless, especially on rookies. Hodkinson and Reynolds copped plenty of heat from the Queenslanders, including a memorable back-page spray from The Courier-Mail.

“I knew the noise was there, you’d be lying to yourself if you don’t think it’ll be plastered across TV and the newspapers,” Hodkinson said.

“It was in the back of my mind, Grub and I spoke about it, and I’ve still got that newspaper clipping back home and I might have to have a chat with the fella who wrote it to thank him for the motivation.”

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But the barbs that hurt the most were the ones that came from New South Wales itself. With Hodkinson entering his maiden series and Reynolds experience limited to one game off the bench the year before, their confidence was still a work in progress.

“Being a halfback, eight series down, the pressure was on and there were going to be a lot of opinions out there,” Hodkinson said.

“Was I everyone’s first choice? No. Was I second, third, fourth? Probably not. But I was very thankful for the people who backed me, I knew the Queenslanders would come in and have a go but when your own aren’t backing you that’s disappointing.

“Whoever wears that jumper, you get behind them no matter what, that’s part of your state, that’s part of who you are. But I tried to be mature about it.

“Luke Lewis said to stay off my phone, don’t read the papers and don’t watch TV and I took that onboard, which was the best thing I could have done.”

Little things went a long way as the halves duo tried to put their stamp on the team. Hodkinson got a supportive message from Ricky Stuart, who he’d only met once before, which meant a lot.

Two men talk to a coach during a rugby league training session

Daley backed Hodkinson and Reynolds to the hilt. (Getty Images: Chris Hyde)

Daley empowered them by having them address the squad before each team meeting and leading the video sessions.

“I know he did that for a reason, to try and make us feel comfortable, but Josh and I were standing up there looking at each other saying ‘Jesus Christ, this is going to be interesting!’ Hodkinson said.

“Because you had guys who had been there for so long, leaders like Paul Gallen, Beau Scott, Luke Lewis, Ryan Hoffman, Jarryd Hayne, Greg Bird, Robbie Farah and we’re just two young fellas up the front telling everyone what we’re going to do, what sets we’re going to run.

“The faith that Loz showed in us, I’ll never forget that. When he rang me to let me know I was in he said he needed me to direct the boys around and be calm in those moments of chaos, because that’s what let them down through a lot of those years.”

Whatever it takes

Lang Park is an intimidating Origin venue at the best of times and in 2014, for a New South Welshman, Caxton Street may as well have been a road to damnation.

Queensland is beautiful one day and perfect the next but for the Blues the home of Origin football had become the only hellhole in paradise, one soaked in Fourex and decked out in Maroon, a place where so many teams arrived so full of hope only to realise there was none to be had in the face of the greatest team either state had ever known.

From the start of the streak in 2006, the Blues lost eight of ten matches at Lang Park and both their wins were in dead rubbers.

By 2014, they hadn’t won a live game there in nine years and hadn’t won a series opener at the venue since 2003. 

Throw in that it was the 100th match of State of Origin and Queensland, who already live their history every day, would retire the number 11 jersey in honour of Arthur Beetson, the creation figure of the whole Origin concept, and few would have backed the Blues with free money.

It had been 32 years since the Blues had thrown a debutant halfback into The Cauldron and walked away with a win. In a place where New South Wales careers go to die rather than be born, Hodkinson and his teammates had no choice but to embrace the enormity of the challenge ahead of them.

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“The first thing that stood out to me was how the stadium rattled as we went out, it was like an earthquake. We loved it as a team, we loved being booed like that,” Hodkinson said.

“We had a call – ‘whatever it takes’ – and I remember looking around at times when were defending, backsides were hanging out, blood was everywhere, lungs were gone, but we kept showing up for each other.

“That’s what we built before that game, a brotherhood that can’t be broken.”

The Blues used their desperation as a weapon and went through the fire to earn a 12-8 win that ranks as one of the state’s best ever. Defeat hung in the air but the Blues refused to breathe in an almighty defensive effort.

Hodkinson played his part, kicking two goals, but the match is better remembered for the heroics of the Morris twins as Brett played on with a bad shoulder injury and Josh chased down Greg Inglis on a busted knee that would rule him out for the rest of the series.

The two pieces of play became an instant part of Origin folklore and inspired a downtrodden New South Wales public to believe the end of Queensland’s mighty streak really could be around the corner.

Cooper Cronk’s broken arm early in the fixture meant the Maroons would be without one of their best for the second match of the series at Stadium Australia. The Blues would have to wait years for a better chance than this.

Two men link arms before the national anthem plays

After winning Origin I, Reynolds and Hodkinson found themselves on the brink of history. (Getty Images: Matt King )

It was a tight, gripping encounter. Neither team could break the game open as the Blues attempted to hammer their dreams into reality through brute force from the likes Gallen and Bird while Reynolds attacked Thurston with a tenacity and ferocity uncommon even in Origin football.

The time went by and the scoreboard stayed low. As a halfback, it’s easy to panic when points don’t come and Hodkinson might have done so if he’d had even a second to ponder it.

“In Origin you don’t have time to think, everything is just right in front of you. We just had to keep going set for set, we knew they had points in them so we had to back our defence and wait for an opportunity,” Hodkinson said.

“This is one of the great Queensland sides, they’re not going to make many mistakes in attack or defence. I don’t think they dropped a ball until just before halftime. 

“You have to wait for it. You have to be patient. The opportunity will come.”

A place in forever

What stands out about the try that levelled the scores on that fateful night is how simple it seems to be – in the 72nd minute, Hodkinson shows a dummy to Daly Cherry-Evans and slices through to score from about ten metres out.

But there are far more moving parts to it than meets the eye. After his knee injuries, Hodkinson couldn’t really run – at least, not like a lot of other halves could. He only had two carries in the entire match.

The space for his try was created by all 72 minutes that came beforehand. It wasn’t quite a planned move, but it wasn’t a flash of brilliance either. It was Hodkinson reading what he saw, using what he had and doing it all at just the right time.

That might sound easy but if it was plenty of other players would have done it. There’s a reason why, if you have the patience to wait for the chance, the knowledge to know when it arrives and the courage to take it, you get to live forever.

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“We had a big backline set up, Josh (Reynolds) and Haynsey and everyone else were ready to go, but I looked up and counted some numbers and saw Slater moving over to the open side, which he hadn’t done all night,” Hodkinson said.

“I called it late, because it happened late, and Robbie Farah reacted well and I can’t thank him enough for that because if he goes the other way we wouldn’t be speaking about this ten years later.

“Hats off to our middles, who got us in position late. Hats off to Faz for responding to the over call.

“Hats off to Hoffy (Ryan Hoffman) and the other boys outside him for running those decoys, because Hoffy was running that line all day and I was feeding him so he was able to hold the defenders off.

“Without all those blokes, it doesn’t happen.”

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Hodkinson found the promised land, which brings us right back to the start and his kick with destiny, the one he knew he was going to kick the second he put it on the tee.

It sailed through, Reynolds got the better of Thurston in a wild last few minutes and the Blues held on for a victory that ended the greatest winning streak Origin has ever and likely will ever know.

“It happened so fast, I hugged someone who was near me, heard the crowd go ballistic,” Hodkinson said.

“We’d done it and after so long you could see the relief in the guys who had been there for some time and who had gone through the pain. I was so happy for them.”

The dream of a Blues whitewash didn’t last long as Queensland romped to victory in the dead rubber. Reynolds never played Origin again after that season and Hodkinson only lasted until the end of the following series.

But all that is just what happened next. The magic that lived in them could not last forever and becomes all the more mythical because it only existed for a brief window of their lives.

If something only happens once it becomes unique – that means there’s nothing else like it.

The 2014 triumph has become somewhat overlooked in the decade since. There’s been attempts to retrofit Queensland’s subsequent three series years in the years after into a part of the dynasty that have, for the most part, been quite successful.

If Hodkinson and Reynolds were Maroons the Queenslanders would have carved their faces onto mountains, or at the very least turned them into folk heroes in the vein of Adam Mogg and Paul Vautin’s miracle Maroons of 1995.

But the Blues don’t really do cult classics or underdog stories as well as their northern counterparts and players like Hodkinson and Reynolds suffer for it as they slip through the cracks.

Not that it worries Hodkinson much. He lives in Queensland now and he hears about that fateful series all the time.

He’s proud of what he did as part of that side and he knows the past is written in ink and cannot be changed.

“Whether it’s spoken about or not doesn’t bother me. It can be overlooked and that’s fine, because it’s in the history books and they can’t ever take it away from us. It’ll be there forever,” Hodkinson said.

“I can’t wait to share those moments with my kids when they get a bit older and understand footy a bit more.

“If I run into anyone regarding football it’s nearly always the thing that comes up. And that’s OK with me, if I was remembered for the 2014 Origin series and being a part of it, I’m happy with that.

“It’s the first thing a lot of people say to me when they meet me, especially up here in Queensland. They always say how much they don’t like me because we broke the drought, but it’s all in good fun.”

Hodkinson will be on deck at Stadium Australia again at the series opener on Wednesday night. Some of the other 2014 guys will be there as well and a formal reunion could follow later this year.

It’s a fitting time to commemorate one of the state’s greatest wins. The Blues are once again on their heels after a series of Queensland wins – although two in a row is surely an easier run to end than eight – and they’ve got a smart, cunning halfback paired with a fiery, passionate five-eighth.

And while Jarome Luai and Nicho Hynes are far more established and accomplished than Hodkinson and Reynolds were in 2014, they’re still a halves duo with a lot to prove at this level – Luai is looking for redemption after a poor series last year while Hynes will be starting in the halves in Origin for the first time.

“I just had to keep it simple and not try to do anything I wasn’t doing at club level,” Hodkinson said.

“Nicho doesn’t need to do anything out of the ordinary, he’s a fantastic player, a Dally M winner, he’s got so much talent he just needs to play his own game.

“Don’t listen to outside noise, don’t listen to what people think he needs to do, if he just plays his style of footy he can get the job done.

“I’m excited to see how he goes, I really think he can do a great job for the Blues.”

dan