MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Western Force captain Matt Hodgson, the heart and soul of the endangered Super Rugby club, will retire at the end of the season but continue the fight to keep the game alive in the far-flung Australian state.
The 35-year-old Sydney-born loose forward will hang up his boots after completing a 12th season with Perth-based Force, having made his debut in their first Super Rugby match against the ACT Brumbies in 2006.
Capped 11 times by the Wallabies, Hodgson spurned lucrative offers to play overseas and stayed loyal to Western Australia, so he was devastated when the Australian Rugby Union announced in April that the Force could be axed from the competition.
The ARU has agreed to cut either the Force or the Melbourne Rebels for next season as Super Rugby contracts from 18 to 15 teams. South Africa will announce which two teams they will cut on July 7.
The Dave Wessels-coached Force have battled to four wins from 13 games with two rounds left this season, still better than the records of the Rebels (1-1-11) and the Queensland Reds (3-0-10), who were never considered for the cull.
But the uncertainty has taken a heavy toll on the Force players and staff.
"It's been probably the toughest year in rugby I've dealt with," Hodgson told reporters at a news conference in Perth on Friday.
"The body is right and I could play on physically but mentally with the off-field it's been a big drain. A lot of the off-field stuff has overshadowed what we are doing on field.
"It's probably taken a bit of love and passion out of the game and why you play the game.
"At the moment I get more enjoyment out of going to help junior rugby, watching my six-year-old run around.
"I'm glad that I've been here this year to put up the fight and hopefully we can keep the fight going."
An inspirational skipper, Hodgson signed a one-year deal with the Force last year with a view to moving into coaching but the team's disbandment would strike a body-blow for rugby in a state where Australian Rules is the dominant football code.
"Being a parent myself, you don't know where to put your kid now," Hodgson said at a media conference in April, struggling to hold back tears.
"Do I put him in rugby or stay in Western Australia playing AFL (Australian Football League)?
"It's frustrating and I think the way it's been done is probably the most annoying thing."
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by John O'Brien