Rebels coach Dave Wessels says Reece Hodge is a “natural centre” and is talented enough to shift into the Wallabies’ no.13 jersey for the upcoming Rugby Championship.
The Wallabies will begin their winter campaign on Friday night when a national side take on a Super Rugby selection XV at Leichhardt Oval.
Cheika will pick his strongest side possible but minus troops from the Waratahs and players tied up in club finals, it is not so much a selection trial as a full-contact hit out to build fitness and combinations.
Indeed, Cheika will already have a decent grasp of his team for Bledisloe I on August 18 but Friday night will still shine a light on a few spots, and a few fringe players.
The most pressing positional problem Cheika needs to solve is coming up with a new outside centre, after Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani were both lost to injury for the entire Rugby Championship.
Cheika said last week he’d contemplate NSW centre Curtis Rona, Hodge and even Israel Folau.
The last candidate is a smoke bomb from Cheika and is not a serious option for the gig, and Rona’s form has wavered throughout the season in the mid-field. Cheika sees him more as a wing option, too.
Melbourne centre Tom English, the captain of the Super Rugby selection side, is seriously under-rated and by virtue of being involved on Friday night, could be a dark horse candidate.
But all signs point to Hodge moving into the no.13 jersey, despite playing no.10 for the Rebels in the back half of the Super Rugby season.
Cheika will name his side on Wednesday, and though he too has been developing Hodge’s utility value to also cover the playmaking spots, it’s expected the 27-Test Mr Fixit will spend time at outside centre.
“I think Reece is a natural centre, whether it be 12 or 13,” Wessels told RUGBY.com.au.
“He will feel very comfortable there. He has fantastic acceleration which is an ability to genuinely take an outside hole, and defensively he is very solid.”
Hodge has spent time in every spot in the Wallabies backline bar no.9, and assumed the utility role once held by 116-Test Wallaby Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Versatility used to be regarded as a curse in footy but in modern rugby it’s a huge asset, according to Wessels.
For the team, the coach and the player.
“I think Reece has actually enjoyed playing in a few different positions because it has given him the perspective of what players either side of him expect of him in those roles. He knows, in some way, his role in the national side is going to be one that he has to be versatile, in order to fill those,” Wessels said.
“That is only possible when someone has a pretty tough mental side, too. He doesn’t get rattled by that at all. You call him in Monday and say “you’re going to play ten”, he’s happy with that. He goes to training and doesn’t think about it again. That takes a certain type of person and that’s what makes him so good.
“We used a lot of six-two benches and the reason we could do that is because we have players like Reece and “Engo” (English), in some respects, being able to cover all positions in the backline.”
Wessels is also a huge fan of English, who not only impressed the coach enough to survive the rationalisation process when the Rebels absorbed much of the Force roster, but was made captain of the franchise as well.
“He has really performed well this year,” Wessels said.
“He is big and he is much faster than you think he is. He is one of the fastest we have, so he has the ability to play on the wing too. He is left-footed, which is handy, and he is incredibly fit. One of the fittest in our club.
“So when you bundle that to his energy and his talk on the field, he has brought a huge amount to our group.”
"As a team member, you really couldn’t ask for someone better than Tom."
The Wallabies take on the Australian Super Rugby Selection at Leichhardt Oval on Friday August 3, kicking off at 6:45pm AEST. FREE Entry for all spectators and a LIVE STREAM on RUGBY.com.au.