THE STAGE was set on Friday night for one of Hawthorn's great captains to remind the competition why he is the player to watch in September. Rightly criticised and scrutinised for his drink-driving offence on the eve of the finals, Hodge had a point to prove this week. He was off his game against West Coast in the Hawks' qualifying final loss and, being the captain, his team followed that lead. On Friday night they followed his lead again. The result was a 74-point win.
Performance on Friday night at the MCG
Hodge started forward and, one minute in, used his guile to intercept Brodie Smith's kick-in. He took his time and converted a set shot from outside 50m, setting the tone for Hawthorn's ruthless start to the match.
He generally stayed forward on Kyle Cheney early but attended some centre bounces, attacking the contest and the man in kamikaze fashion when he got the chance. Rory Sloane and Rory Laird were each in his sights at different stages.
His second goal came when teammate David Hale tackled Smith and the ball spilled into Hodge's lap. He snapped without looking up and went straight to congratulate Hale once it sailed through.
It's easy to say Hodge was simply in the right spot at the right time, but that is what he does. In a pack comprised of four Crows and two Hawks (the other Cyril Rioli) he used his perfect judgement to take an uncontested mark in the second quarter and kick his third goal.
He was in the right place at the right time (again) for his fourth goal in the third term, with the ball spilling in the goalsquare where he used his clean hands to guide it quickly on to his left boot.
Cheney was often isolated on Hodge, who played as the Hawks' deepest forward for long periods. When he was in the centre, the Crows didn't give him any extra attention.
Looking fresh and moving well, his attack on the Crows' ball carrier was a feature all night and Smith was caught high by Hodge's vigorous attack on the contest in the second quarter. At the very least, the Match Review Panel will take a good look at the vision.
A player who goes from siren to siren, Hodge was furiously directing the Hawks' zone when they were 53 points up late in the third quarter, and he laid a bruising bump on Dangerfield moments later just as the Crows star kicked down the line.
If the "unsociable" side of Hodge's game had gone missing against the Eagles, it returned against the Crows. He was in Eddie Betts' face after Paul Puopolo caught the small forward holding the ball in the second term, and relished a push and shove with Rory Sloane after the aforementioned collision with Smith.
Further highlighting his siren-to-siren mentality, Hodge found an extra effort to wrap Dangerfield up with the ball with five seconds remaining in the match. He made shaking Dangerfield's hand post-match a priority.
The opening goal of the match. Hodge positioned himself right in the middle of Hawthorn's zone for the Crows' kick-in, directing his teammates before drifting wide as Smith shaped to kick in. He took off and hauled in an intercept mark in front of Scott Thompson, holding his nerve from beyond 50m in the perfect opening for both team and player. Hodge was uncharacteristically animated in his celebration, with every player getting to him.
Hodge celebrates his opening-minute goal against the Crows. Picture: Adam Trafford, AFL Media
In the second minute of the fourth quarter, Hodge dropped a sitter 20m out from goal. He had found space on Cheney and got clean hands to the ball, but it bounced off. Still, he backed up by winning the ball at ground level and causing a stoppage. He couldn't believe the simple error and was rolling his eyes once the umpire blew his whistle.
The stats sheet
What they said in the rooms
"The first seven minutes he was everywhere. I thought there were two Hodgeys out there. He was really the leader in that first seven minutes and everyone followed from there. The thing I like about him is he does the simple things really well and that's what we expect from him. We don't expect him to go for high-flying marks, he's just hard and tough and those players are really good to take a leaf from." – Jordan Lewis
"It's fair to say the last week I didn't read too many papers or watch too many TV shows. When you have a bad game you don't need people telling you that … you realise your next performance needs to be better." – Luke Hodge
"He set the scene." – Brian Lake
How will he fare against Fremantle?
Ross Lyon, beware. Hodge was outstanding when his side beat Fremantle by 72 points in Launceston in round 15, with 31 possessions and three goals. Prior to that he had 28 possessions and one goal against Lyon's men in 2014, and he was among the Hawks' best in the 2013 Grand Final. Teammate Sam Mitchell is the popular choice to earn a tag against the Dockers. That's not to say Hodge will be left to do as he pleases, but he'll be hard to stop. He spent seven minutes off the ground in the final quarter on Friday night and should be fresher for it.
Sam Mitchell, Hodge and Matt Suckling revel in their victory. Picture: Michael Willson, AFL Media