Leaving a mark on the game
March 9, 2012
Aub Hodgson helped Australia capture the Bledisloe Cup for the first time back in 1934 © Getty Images
Some rugby players stand out simply by virtue of their names. One has to wonder precisely what possessed the parents of future England wing Barzillai Beckerlegs Bennett as they approached the font for his christening in 1883. And what odds might one have got against the first Wesley to play for one of the established rugby nations being a Frenchman?
Probably not immensely different from those you would get against anyone christened Aubrey ever again playing international rugby (although anyone offering a market on this should keep a wary eye on South African fullback Aubrey McDonald). Three have done so - the first two were single-capped Victorian Englishmen, Spurling of Blackheath (1882) and Dowson of Moseley (1899).
The third is the only Aubrey to have played international rugby in the last 100 years - not a bad way to introduce him since the centenary of Aubrey Hodgson's birth falls on Friday, March 9. Hodgson, an Australian, left far more of a mark on the game - and opponents - than either of his namesakes. Spiro Zavos, among the most historically aware of the game's chroniclers, has written that he was 'as good as any contemporary player anywhere in the world' at his peak in the 1930s.
It might be a reasonable assumption that toughness was a pre-requisite for survival for anyone called Aubrey in Australia. Hodgson certainly was tough, described by Zavos as 'a snarler of a loose forward who terrorised opposition backs and sometimes his own with the fury and aggression of his play'. But he was not exactly the archetypal Aussie battler.
Instead, like most Australian players of his time, he came from a privileged background - a family with substantial business interests - and attended Newington College, one of the institutions labelled in Australia as 'Great Public Schools'. That slightly incongruous forename - sitting a little oddly with brothers more conventionally labelled Ron, Reg, Harold, Ken and Colin - was almost invariably abbreviated by fans and journalists to 'Aub', while team-mates generally called him 'Acca'.
He was a comparatively rare player of his time big enough to have played centre for a modern Wales team - six feet one inch and 231 pounds. He and brother Ron, built along the same lines 'attracted attention because of their splendid physique' when they entered an armed forces recruiting office to enlist for wartime service in 1940.
That he won only 11 caps was down to Australia not playing very often, and the curtailing of his chances at 27 when war broke out in 1939. All of those caps were won against the fearsome opposition provided by the southern hemisphere.
There would have been more, and some European memories. But he was among the Wallabies team who arrived with exquisite ill-timing at Southampton on September 2, 1939, the day before war was declared, helped fill sandbags, were received by King George VI and then made a return voyage with the threat of U-boats as an unwelcome antidote to seagoing boredom.
Hodgson was not a man to tangle with. Legend has it that one of his first matches for his club Manly brought him into direct opposition to veteran 'Wild Bill' Cerutti. After early skirmishes, Cerutti approached him at half-time to suggest a truce. Hodgson agreed, only to be brutally taken out at the first line-out of the second half. As he looked up, bemused, Cerutti said 'That's your first lesson. Never trust your opponent".
It seems to have been a lesson well learned. The South Africans of the time, as tough as they came, learnt a healthy respect tempered with fear after one epic brawl at Sydney in 1937. The Boks won 26-16 in spite of Hodgson scoring his only international try, but a still more memorable contribution to a game remembered by many spectators as the dirtiest they had ever seen was his technique for working over scrum-half Pierre de Villiers - charging at him, giving him the ball and then immediately driving over him in company with the rest of the Australian pack. A fine photo evokes what followed, with De Villiers prone in one corner of the picture and Bok prop Harry Martin looking distinctly apprehensive as he attempts to exact revenge with his fists.
But Hodgson was vastly more than a simple hard man. He was a player of genuine all-round gifts, the Sydney Morning Herald once recording that he can 'fill any position in the forwards and his speed and sure hands make him a useful threequarter'.
His quality has a witness of the highest standard - the New Zealander Terry McLean who wrote, after a lifetime of rugby-watching, that 'the greatest display by a forward that I ever saw was given by an Australian named Aubrey Hodgson in 1936', recalling a match between the Wallabies and Wairarapa in which "Whenever he moved in the line-out, the ball came to him. Whenever he ran in the open, ball in hand, there were great spaces - kamikaze kids had not been chosen for Wairarapa." Zavos notes that this was a reprise of a similarly extraordinary one-man display in the Wallabies 25-11 hammering of the All Blacks in Sydney in 1934.
War service was delayed by some weeks in 1940 when he broke his leg playing for Manly the day after volunteering - for the second time in his career declining an anaesthetic while a serious injury was treated. He announced his retirement from playing in 1944, but returned and only gave up in 1946 when surprisingly omitted from the Manly first team.
By then he was coaching in reserve grade, and rapidly graduated to running the first grade. Like his playing career, his time as a coach was successful but eventful - there were a number of triumphs, but also disciplinary tangles and a player revolt in 1948 against methods they felt were 'too blunt'.
Hodgson, who died in 1982, was warmly remembered by the 1971 British Lions who met him while visiting Australia. Carwyn James, who coached that Lions team, and John Reason, who reported it, recalled a faraway smile from their host 'when somebody waxed indignant about the violence of modern rugby'.
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