Why Rennie has turned to Hodge for Bledisloe finale

Thu, 05/11/2020, 05:06 am
Christy Doran
by Christy Doran
Dave Rennie says he chose Reece Hodge, in large part, because of his experience. Photo: Getty Images
Dave Rennie says he chose Reece Hodge, in large part, because of his experience. Photo: Getty Images

Just before noon on Thursday, Wallabies coach Dave Rennie sprung a major surprise by naming Reece Hodge in the No.10 jersey to play the All Blacks in Bledisloe IV on Saturday in Brisbane.

Minutes later, he was asked where Hodge is best suited to play.

The new Wallabies coach’s response was fascinating.

“I’ll tell you after Saturday,” Rennie said, with a genuine sense of uncertainty in his voice.

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Not since James O’Connor was sensationally chosen at fly-half to play the British and Irish Lions in 2013 has there been as much surprise about a 10 option than selecting Hodge in the role.

It’s not the first time he’s been selected in the No.10 jersey for the Wallabies. Only three years ago he admirably wore the jersey against the Brave Blossoms in Japan and helped Michael Cheika’s men to a comfortable 63-30 win in Tokyo.

But Japan is one thing, New Zealand is another.

More to point, in the three years since he ran the rule he’s hardly been given a chance to showcase his skill-set at the Melbourne Rebels, where he’s been shifted around the centres and back three on almost a weekly basis.

Ever since he began his international career in 2016, every Tom, Dick and Harry has asked what role Hodge’s game is best suited to.

Even a week ago, on announcing his side for Bledisloe III, Rennie commented that Hodge’s utility value probably helped him make every matchday squad but also unfortunately hindered his chances of making a starting jersey his own.

On Thursday, Rennie said it was Hodge's chance to show that he’s not just a starter but a ballplayer too.

“I think it was mentioned last week, he’s been a Jack of all trades and filled in a lot of holes, and maybe this is an opportunity to establish himself,” Rennie said.

“I know he wants to cement a spot, and, to be honest, probably his preferred spot is 12 or 13 or 15, not winger, but he’s very excited about playing 10, so maybe 10.”

With O’Connor still not yet fit from his MCL injury, Rennie admitted he thought about giving Noah Lolesio another chance after his tough introduction to international rugby last week, particularly with the Bledisloe Cup remaining in New Zealand’s trophy cabinet for another year after the All Blacks' 43-5 win in Bledisloe III.

But the experience of Hodge, who replaced Lolesio midway through the second-half last weekend at fly-half, and the Rebels’ missile-of-a-boot ultimately saw him earn selection.

“He’s got a big kicking game,” said Rennie of Hodge, who played fly-half as a junior for Manly Marlins.

“We know he can carry and defend well, and he gives a bit of experience on the field and in those inside backs, especially with a pretty young midfield pairing. He’s trained there a bit with us over the last couple of weeks.

“We think Noah, off the bench, it’ll be good for him this week. He’s learnt a bit. He’s actually gone really well at training, and we expect him to respond off the bench.

“He’s learnt to trust others around him. He’s got a really good skill-set, but that probably wasn’t really shown enough on the weekend. He’s responded really well and we did consider throwing him back in, but it’s a very, very young group outside of (halfback Nic White) Whitey so we’ve plugged it with Hodgie there.”

The change at fly-half wasn't the only one, with the straight-running Hunter Paisami recalled to start alongside his Reds teammate Jordan Petaia.

Tom Banks returns at fullback after Dane Haylett-Petty was ruled out with concussion, while Tom Wright will make his debut on the right-wing after Filipo Daugunu paid the price for his unhappy night in Sydney last week.

Meanwhile, Lachie Swinton is the latest to be given a crack at blindside flanker, with Rennie hoping the Waratahs hit-man can bring some sting to the Wallabies' pack.

"What we like about him at training is he creates a bit of edge because he’s physical and even if it’s suppose to be at 60 per cent he’s normally running around at 100," Rennie said of Swinton.

"We expect him to bring that sort of intensity to the game. He’s a big defender, excellent around cleanout, he’s developing his distribution game and developing as a lineout forward, but we think the edge that he can bring will create opportunities elsewhere."

For the second straight Test the Wallabies were made to pay for turning over possession.

READ MORE:

ANALYSIS: How the All Blacks shattered the Wallabies' hopes and the tactic Rennie must 'rethink'

'DELIGHTED TO SEE SELECTORS GIVE THEM A GO': Rennie's Wallabies told not to 'panic' and stick with youth

'FIVE OR SIX WEEKS INTO A FOUR-YEAR CAMPAIGN': Rennie 'gutted' but realistic about where Wallabies sit

Having defended for their lives in the opening stages of last week’s loss, the Wallabies had their chances but regularly kicked away possession and turned it over with loose carries too.

Rennie said his side had to “treasure the ball” more, but remained confident his side could match it with the All Blacks.

“I guess the first thing we reminded the boys that it’s Test footy,” the New Zealander said.

“We were just way too loose with ball-in-hand, and as we’ve learnt the last two Tests you can’t keeping the ball back to the All Blacks.

“We’ve prepared well. We’ve got to get better at deciding opportunities to play. Accuracy is a word we’ve talked a lot about this week and we did last week as well, we need a response. Last week wasn’t good enough, and we expect to see it on Saturday.

“Really, we need to be at our best to knock the All Blacks over, and we need to apply pressure to them so they’re not at their best and that’s what we saw in Wellington and that’s what we need to see this weekend.”

The Wallabies will fly to Brisbane on matchday, before returning that evening to Sydney.

ALL BLACKS (1-15): Karl Tu'inkuafe, Codie Taylor, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Akira Ioane, Sam Cane (c), Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sevu Reece, Jordie Barrett

RESERVES: Asafo Aumua, Alex Hodgman, Tyrel Lomax, Patrick Tuipulotu, Cullen Grace, Brad Weber, Damian McKenzie, Will Jordan

WALLABIES (1-15): James Slipper, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Allan Alaalatoa, Rob Simmons, Matt Philip, Lachie Swinton, Michael Hooper (c), Harry Wilson, Nic White, Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Hunter Paisami, Jordan Petaia, Tom Wright, Tom Banks

RESERVES: Folau Fainga'a, Angus Bell, Taniela Tupou, Ned Hanigan, Liam Wright, Tate McDermott, Noah Lolesio, Filipo Daugunu

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