There might not be a better example of just how close the 2015 Buildcorp National Rugby Championship is than the North Harbour Rays. Fairly comprehensively beaten at home by the resurgent Sydney Stars in the first round, the Rays then made the long trek west, and handed out their own comprehensive beating on the Perth Spirit.
After just eight games, it already seems as though every team can beat any opposition on their day.
“I think most of the teams are going to be pretty competitive throughout the comp, so it’s just going to come down to who performs better on the day,” North Harbour Rays fullback Reece Hodge told www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week.
“We definitely took a while to work into that first game against the Stars, and definitely weren’t at our best, but I think after defending really well for the first twenty minutes against Perth, we took a lot of confidence out of that, and we started playing better rugby.”
Hodge was rested by Rays coach Geoff Townsend in Round 1, one of several players given the extra week to recover from what had been a long and arduous finals campaign for the Manly club in the Sydney premiership. Come the second round, and with another week training together as a squad, the Rays literally looked a different team when they ran out onto McGillivray Oval at the University of Western Australia last Saturday.
“We had a pretty limited preparation for that first game, and I think it definitely showed out on the field, particularly with the Stars being mostly made up of the Sydney Uni team, they would have a bit more preparation time. But we can’t use that as an excuse; I think going forward if we can keep improving our combinations, the hopefully our performance on the park improves as well,” Hodge said.
“We were really pleased that our forwards were able to keep up with [Perth’s], and even better them at the breakdown and especially the tackle contest on Saturday. Our set piece took a while to get going, but I think it improved throughout the game, and hopefully our forwards can take some confidence into Thursday’s game against Melbourne.”
And there may be no worse time to play the wounded Rising side. Their first round win over Queensland Country on the Gold Coast looked like they would just carry on their superb 2014 form, but they were quickly brought back to earth last weekend at home by Brisbane City. Hodge can’t see anything but a tough encounter.
“They’ve got a fair bit of quality around the park. We’ve talked this week about how we think we found our identity on the weekend, and I think if we can match them up front and match the physicality that’s going to come with all their Super Rugby players, then our backline can do some good things off the back of that.
“The most important thing for us it to be in that physical battle right from the get-go, rather than taking a while to get into it, and then hopefully we can unleash in the first half and into the second half as well.”
For Hodge, taking on Melbourne carries a little extra significance, too. It was announced in the build-up to the 2015 NRC that Hodge had signed with the Melbourne Rebels for two seasons from 2016, and will head to the Victorian capital after the completion of the Rays’ campaign.
He admits that the thought of facing future teammates had registered.
“Yeah, it’s maybe in the back of the mind a little bit, just trying to suss out who I’m competing with for spots, but also, it will to good after the game to sit down with a few of them and get to know them a little bit better as well.
Hodge possesses a massive kicking boot - not unlike Rising and Rebels flyhalf Jack Debreczini - but his versatility in being able to play 10, 12, and 15 is also an attractive bonus for a Super Rugby program. But interestingly, Hodge said the flexibility is only a recent addition to his game.
“I think I’ve always had the ability [to play other positions], I just didn’t spend a lot of time outside 10 up until this year. I think my skill set is suited to a few different positions, and I really enjoying carrying and playing at 12 this year (for Manly) with a bit more time and space compared to 10.
“With the Rays, fullback has given me a chance to do a bit more kicking, and bit more open space as well. I like all three positions, and we a bit of a talk about it for the Rays, and we thought that was the best for the makeup of the team. I’m happy to play wherever the coaches want me.”
A Manly junior his whole life, Hodge started playing rugby in the Under-7s and is very much a product of the club system. Despite not being able to play a lot of rugby at Manly Selective High School, Hodge still made the Australian Schoolboys side in 2012, one of just three players (Brisbane City’s Jake McIntyre was another) who came from outside the GPS system. He played Australia Under-20s in 2012 and 2013.
After school, he played Manly Colts and suffered a horrific ankle break in the 2013 Grand Final, but fought his way into the top grade this season after a comeback last year playing some Sevens. You might say his rapid rise has been some time coming.
He’s very much looking forward taking on one the NRC’s hotshot teams on familiar turf tonight, though.
“Hopefully we can get a good crowd there at Manly Oval on a Thursday night, a good atmosphere, and I think a lot of the boys are keen to make amends for the first round performance against the Stars, and give the fans something to cheer about.”
Catch all the latest news and views from the 2015 Buildcorp NRC via www.buildcorpnrc.com.au