'Grumpy' Hodge helping to mould Lions rising star
IT'S almost inevitable the name Luke Hodge will come at some point when interviewing Brisbane Lions players in 2018.
From new skipper Dayne Zorko to last year's No.1 draft pick Cam Rayner, the impact the four-time premiership Hawk has had on the Lions since arriving late last year is profound.
When discussing his breakout second season, Rising Star contender Alex Witherden doesn't need any prompting.
Fast-tracked into becoming one of the most creative half-backs in the competition, the 19-year-old almost immediately credits playing alongside "the great Luke Hodge".
"When you play with him the first time, you think 'Bloody hell, this bloke's grumpy'," Witherden said. "But he just demands a higher standard all the time.
"On the field, even if it's a little thing, you're one or two metres off where you should be, he'll make sure you know about it.
"We're playing a little bit differently this year - more of a team defence than a one-on-one defence.
"It only takes one cog for it to fall down. But with him directing, it just ensures that everyone is in the right spot most of the time."
Hodge, though missing again this week with a slight calf strain, has been the closest thing we've got in the AFL to the old playing coach.
"He's good at giving you feedback on the spot," Witherden said. "You don't have to wait until after the game or Monday. You can clean it up right there and then."
Away from the field, Witherden said, he and Hodge - both former members of TAC Cup club the Geelong Falcons - "bonded pretty quickly".
"I actually knew his brother (Dylan)," Witherden said.
"He was down at the Falcons when I was there. Dylan probably worded him up a little bit."
Hailing from Barwon Heads on the Bellarine Peninsula, Witherden wasn't part of the Falcons' set-up as much as he would have liked in his final year of junior football.
He had suffered a broken right leg while captaining Geelong College in a school clash early in 2016 when an opposition player - current Giant Tim Taranto - fell on it in a tackle.
But although he would be restricted to just two TAC Cup games and miss the national under-18 championships entirely, the Lions had seen enough to warrant selecting him at No.23 in the 2016 national draft.
That draft is proving to be one of great riches for the club, with North Ballarat pair Hugh McCluggage (No.3) and Jarrod Berry (No.17) also snapped up.
All have re-committed to the club, are making an impact and have played no small part in the side's three-match winning streak, which whey will look to extend when they host Adelaide at the Gabba today.
"It helps that we're all country boys ... it made that transition up to Queensland a lot easier," Witherden said. "They are probably two of the first people you go and celebrate with.
"Having moved away from your family together, started a new life together ... you always have that special bond of being drafted in that same year."
Witherden has played all 16 games this year and is eligible for the Rising Star award due to playing less than 10 games in his first season (nine).
Collingwood's Jaidyn Stephenson appears to be a lock for the gong, but Witherden is staking a claim.
Since 2000, only nine players have tallied more disposals in their first 25 games. He leads the Rising Star nominees in most key areas.
One of them is "metres gained". In fact, he tallied 747m in the Lions' shock win over Hawthorn (for the second time this season) last week - the most by a single player in a game this season.
"The focus is not always on kicks, mark and handballs," Witherden said.
"We have a category called fight-to-win acts. That's how many times you put pressure on the opposition. Being a running half-back, metres gained is probably more important (to me) than (to) an inside mid who handballs more.
"I've had a couple of good weeks in that category, which shows that I'm able to get the ball in my hands and run with it. They are my strengths."
Thanks to Witherden and his like, the Lions are steadily gaining respect from the rest of the competition.
"I'm not sure I saw these three wins coming, because we were 1-12, but I did know we were playing good footy," he said.
"It's just a bit of a justification for what we're doing. We're sticking to the brand that we want to play."
That brand is all about "taking the game on", "free-flowing" footy - typical of Witherden's rebounding running game.
Well, that is when Hodgey's not telling him to stand in the "right spot".