BRONCOS hopeful Matt Lodge is facing bankruptcy and will quit top-level rugby league, revealing his emotional and financial struggles in his two-year battle to return to the NRL.
Breaking a nine-month silence, a shattered Lodge has given up hope of being an NRL star, detailing plans to return to Sydney next year to work as a landscaper and play park football with his mates.
“I’ve just had enough,” Lodge told The Sunday Mail.
“I just feel like I’m going nowhere. I’m not progressing in the game.”
It’s been almost two years since the NRL was rocked by an offshore scandal when Lodge, holidaying in the US, was arrested at gunpoint by New York police following a wild night out fuelled by alcohol and prescription medication.
Aged 20, he will never forget the terror of a brief jail stint in Rikers Island, one of the toughest prisons in the United States, set on 167 hectares amid crime and carnage in the Bronx.
Deregistered by the NRL, Lodge was handed a surprise lifeline last November by Redcliffe in Queensland’s premier rugby league competition. The Dolphins are a feeder-club to the Broncos.
He saw a ray of hope. In time, Lodge dreamt of a return to the big league under the tutelage of Wayne Bennett at a Broncos club that rated him as a prop so gifted he could help deliver a premiership.
A fortnight ago, Bennett privately contacted NRL boss Todd Greenberg, asking for Lodge to be registered before the June 30 signing deadline. Greenberg rejected the request.
The NRL integrity unit is leaning towards giving Lodge the green light next season but a confluence of forces have convinced the 22-year-old he can wait no longer.
Having spent the last two years trying to rebuild his life, Lodge has accumulated a $150,000 legal debt. A US court has also ordered him to pay $1.6 million to his victims in a civil lawsuit in which Lodge was unrepresented.
Now resigned to bankruptcy, Lodge admits he is tired of being chased by US authorities for money he doesn’t have.
“When I heard about the court order, my first thought was, ‘I can’t pay this’,” said Lodge, who was allowed to return to Australia after pleading guilty to one count of reckless assault.
“I don’t want to go bankrupt but it will be on my record for three years and after that, I can try and somehow get on with my life.
“I have tried to explain my situation to the American lawyers but they seem to think every league player in Australia is a millionaire.
“The US attorneys have asked if I can go to France or overseas to play rugby union. They don’t even know the difference between rugby league and rugby union.
“I’ve told them I can’t afford a lawyer. I’ve offered to take out a loan to pay what I can afford, but they said their clients were worried that they might miss out on more money if I got back into the NRL.
“Based on things they are saying, they think I should be able to walk into a massive contract. But they don’t understand my reality over here.”
Lodge is paid $700 a week by the Broncos. After rent, he lives on $300. And with his pregnant partner Jessica living in Sydney and due to give birth to their first child in December, Lodge has decided to put family before football.
“I will head back to Sydney when the season ends,” said Lodge, who is in contention to win the Intrust Super Cup player-of-the-year award after an outstanding season at Redcliffe.
“I don’t want sympathy. I did the crime and I did my time.
“The incident in New York was easily the biggest mistake in my life. I wish I could change it. I’ve copped my punishment on the chin, but since that mistake I’ve tried to make myself a better person.
“I just feel like I’m going nowhere. I’m not progressing in the game.
“Ideally, I would like to keep training for the next few years. I’d love to play NRL again, but it’s not sustainable, especially with the bills I have.
“My partner has stood by me in my toughest times and soon I’m going to be a father … I need to provide for them. I can’t do it living in another state on $700 a week.
“I have been blocked several times from coming back to the NRL. I haven’t had a drink since that night in New York, which is coming up two years. I don’t know what more I can do to show the NRL that I’ve rehabilitated myself.”
Redcliffe officials claim the 116kg forward’s behaviour has been exemplary and he regularly chats to junior players, including the Broncos’ under-20s, about the perils of alcohol and how one stupid mistake can ruin your life.
Sitting at a Gold Coast cafe, Lodge’s formidable physical presence belies his polite demeanour. He is smart and softly spoken. He is studying a business-management university degree and achieving high distinctions.
Lodge has been training with the Broncos for the past two months and, if registered, was a certainty to be added to their full-time roster next season.
But the NSW under-20s bookend, who played 12 top-grade games for Wests Tigers in 2014-15, is at ease with the thought of never playing NRL again.
“It will be hard to give up playing with the Broncos,” said Lodge, who will complete his university degree in two years.
“I will be leaving a few stones unturned, for sure, but I will have to accept that somehow.
“I made the mistake and I am paying the price. I don’t want to be in limbo anymore, I’m sick of that. I wouldn’t say I’m bitter. My NRL career is over but I’m grateful I got to play a few games at least.
“My plan is to go back and play for St Pats Blacktown, that’s my local junior club, and I really enjoyed playing with my mates there last year.
“I know I have a lot more to give, but where am I going? I feel indebted to Redcliffe and the Broncos and Wayne Bennett was great letting me come up when a lot of coaches wouldn’t have. They have genuinely cared about me and I won’t forget that.”
“I’m disappointed to hear Matt has decided to go back home. His behaviour here has been first-class and he has worked with our younger players in speaking honestly about what he went through.
“He has played some outstanding football for our feeder-club Redcliffe. We haven’t had one single issue or incident with Matt but we wish him all the best.”
An NRL spokesman said Lodge would be considered for registration next season, but the Redcliffe prop insisted he was moving on. Lodge urged aspiring league stars to learn from his moment of madness.
“I’m always happy to talk to a young player … because I don’t want them to go through the hell that I did,” Lodge said.