Like most fans, Jacob Lillyman couldn’t wait to find out what made Queensland’s Justin Hodges tick.
Then he saw Hodges in “action” at the 2006 Maroons State of Origin camp.
Fast forward nine years and Lillyman reckons he almost can’t recognise the 33-year-old centre who will play his final Origin in Wednesday night’s series decider in Brisbane.
Lillyman is the first to admit he had much to learn when called up for his Origin debut in game two 2006.
However the forward still knew enough to quickly realise in the Queensland camp that Hodges wasn’t your typical elite athlete.
“He has certainly come a long way,” Lillyman said of Hodges – once a poor trainer – ahead of his Origin swansong.
“I can remember back then with my first involvement with them and guys like him would never stretch.
“But you see him now … obviously due to necessity but his professionalism has certainly come along in leaps and bounds and that has probably helped him over the last few years of his career.
“He’s been a great stalwart and hopefully we can send him out a winner.”
Hodges will play his 24th and final Origin since his 2002 debut on Wednesday night.
Hodges’ Maroons career could have nudged the record for Origins played (36 by Queensland’s Darren Lockyer) if not for a string of serious injuries, including two Achilles operations.
“He’s an inspiration just through what he has gone through, a couple of snapped Achilles,” Lillyman said.
“Not only to come back and play footy after that but to reach the same levels he was at beforehand – he’s a unique player.
“He may have lost a yard or two in pace but that deception and fend…(he) continues to break tackles and sneak through.
“We will hope to send him out in the appropriate fashion.”
Not that Queensland are worrying about send offs with Hodges still around.
Lillyman said no matter the scoreboard result Hodges would emerge triumphant in the sledging stakes against NSW despite the best efforts of the likes of young gun David Klemmer.
“He’s up there with the best I have ever seen,” Lillyman said of Hodges’ niggle.
“I don’t think many get wins on the field against him – I am glad he is on our side.”
And it seems Hodges is not planning on going any time soon despite his looming Origin retirement.
“He’s telling us he will be driving the team bus next year,” Lillyman laughed.
“He’s ruled the first two days of camp out though.”