Charlie Hodgson: Loving unsexy Sarries
Midfield maestro admits his club do not play the beautiful game but tells Chris Hewett that he has no regrets about either leaving Sale or calling time on his England career, such is the team spirit in north London
"You know what he's like: if Charlie says this place is not too bad, he means it's fantastic." The speaker is Richard Wigglesworth, occasional England scrum-half and one of the red-rose internationals who took the high road out of Sale and followed it all the way to Saracens, his long-time mucker Charlie Hodgson being the most recent. When Hodgson appears in the team room, he is immediately asked how he's finding life in the northern reaches of the capital. "Not too bad," he replies.
Saracens and Hodgson, Hodgson and Saracens… either way round, it did not seem the most obvious fit when the thirtysomething stand-off headed south-east at the end of the 2010-11 Premiership campaign. The new champions were worthy of their prize – that much was beyond dispute – but in securing it they had abandoned the adventurous style that had taken them within half a minute of the title the previous season in favour of something far more risk-averse. Hodgson was not, and never had been, anyone's idea of a natural conservative. Could it possibly be made to work?
Let's put it this way: it's working at the moment. As things stand ahead of this afternoon's opening Heineken Cup pool match with Edinburgh at Murrayfield, the Yorkshireman has been responsible for well over 50 per cent of Saracens' total points this term, despite starting only half their games. Last weekend, when Sarries edged past London Welsh 28-23, he bagged the whole lot in a performance that was just about as influential as it gets. Had he not retired from England duty at the end of the summer's trek around Springbok country he might have been first pick for the forthcoming meeting with Fiji at Twickenham.
Any regrets on that score? "No, I'm quite comfortable with it," he says. "I went on tour to South Africa hoping to play in the Tests, or at least in one of them, and I didn't make it. Knowing I was third choice behind Owen [Farrell, his young Saracens clubmate] and Toby [Flood, the rather more experienced Leicester playmaker], and knowing that Stuart [Lancaster, the England coach] is looking to play guys who will be available to him come the next World Cup… it seemed the right time, basically. Having a family at home was another consideration. It's a selfish thing to say, I guess, but I'd been away for weeks on end every summer for 11 years and didn't want to keep doing it if I wasn't going to be playing in the big games.
"It wasn't so much a case of falling out of love with travelling and touring as balancing what I could honestly expect to get out of it at my age against spending more time with my wife and kids. I'll soon be 32 and I have three children – they're four, three and nine months – who want to see more of me. At least, the older ones say they do. I spoke to Stuart and he was fine about it. I suppose the decision was a mutual one in the end."
Lancaster will be slightly less fine about it if Hodgson, an attack-minded midfielder whose tactical mastery is in full flower after a dozen years of Premiership activity, continues to mine this rich vein of form. Wigglesworth may jokingly portray him as a curmudgeonly so-and-so from the wrong side of the Pennines but, to the outsider looking in, the man from Halifax is playing with a joie de vivre not always evident in his latter years at Sale. Is that impression wide of the mark, or bang on the money?
"I'll always be a Sale supporter – I'll always want them to win any game they play, as long as I'm not in the opposing side," he responds. "Does it sadden me to see them at the bottom of the table? Definitely. I spent a long time at the club, it means something to me and I want Sale rugby to be successful. But, at the same time, I think I needed to get away. My last few years there were difficult, mainly because we always seemed to be fighting off relegation. When you're in that position, everything changes: the way you play, the way you think about the game, the way you feel about it. In a win-at-all-costs situation, there's not much enjoyment to be had. Down here, I'm enjoying every minute of it."
To those who believe Saracens play an unusually joyless form of kick-tackle pressure rugby, this will bring to mind the old phrase about frying pans and fires. Those who subscribe to another view of Sarries – that they are mutating into some kind of cult, some rugger-bugger version of the Moonies, with their holistic approach to "personal growth" and their regular awayday "bonding" trips – will wonder if the thinking man's outside-half has had his independence of thought brainwashed out of him.
Hodgson laughs at the "cult" theory. "I've heard that stuff but I don't think there's anything particularly strange about a club going out of its way to treat players unbelievably well, which is what I've found at Saracens," he says. "There's a different approach, certainly, but it's different in a highly stimulating way. I was quite nervous about coming here: on the one hand there was the challenge of walking into a new environment without knowing exactly what to expect and on the other there was the fear that all those years at Sale had left me set in my ways – that I'd find it hard to adapt. But the way they do things makes it easy for newcomers, assuming they're the right newcomers.
"When I first spoke to the people at the top of the club – Brendan Venter, Edward Griffiths, Mark McCall – I found that what I had to say about rugby wasn't the only thing that interested them, or even the main thing. The big point with them was whether I'd fit in, whether I was the kind of character who would contribute to the collective. Once they decided they wanted me, the welcome they gave me was fabulous. How is that repaid? You repay the club on the field – not just in matches, but every day in training. It's a straightforward arrangement and players respond positively to it. If they didn't like the way things are done here, they'd go elsewhere, wouldn't they? Look at the facts: we have a very small turnover of personnel these days."
Yet Hodgson does not wholly dismiss the other popular notion: that Saracens' attacking game leaves an awful lot to be desired. "We're aware of the criticism that we don't play any rugby and we're trying to address it," he says. "Over the last few years, Saracens have developed a very strong defensive game with a view to building an attacking one on top. But that side of rugby doesn't happen overnight. Harlequins play some unbelievable stuff but it took them time to develop in that area. We're looking to move on, just as they moved on. We're working on it."
When his contract expires at the end of next season, Hodgson will make a decision on his future. Might he press on a while longer? "Never say never and all that," he replies. "It's a hard old game, players are getting bigger – have you seen Exeter this year? Ridiculously big – and physical size was never one of my major selling points. But I feel strong at the moment and if I'm still feeling this way in 2014, I might try to squeeze out another year. That's the thing about growing older: you learn how to stay out of trouble."
Unless you're Jonny Wilkinson, surely? Doesn't he still run around looking for rucks to hit? "Unlike me, Jonny always loved getting his head kicked in," Hodgson says of his old rival, laughing.
"What I'd love to do in the time remaining is win another Premiership title" – he helped Sale to the trophy back in 2006 – "and enjoy a really good run in Europe. I've been to two Heineken Cup quarter-finals, but it's an ambition to go further."
Is the current threat to that competition's existence the talk of the dressing room, or do players simply assume it will be sorted? "For us," he says, "it's about playing in the here and now. Murrayfield this weekend, Brussels next week… it's different, and that's the fun of it."
Just like Saracens, then. "Exactly."
Fact in figures
38 Caps Hodgson has won for England.
2,061 Points scored in the Premiership – more than any other player.
38 His total of Premiership drop goals scored.
11.1 His points per game average in the Premiership.
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