O'Connor back for Tri Nations finale, Hodge set to become most versatile Wallaby ever

Tri Nations
by Christy Doran

Reece Hodge is set to the shifted to fullback to accommodate the fit-again James O’Connor for the Wallabies’ final Test of the year against Los Pumas on Saturday at Bankwest Stadium.

It’s understood that Rennie will make those key backline changes official when he announces his side around noon on Thursday for their Tri Nations finale.

The decision to start Hodge in the No.15 jersey means the 26-year-old joins Mat Rogers as the two most versatile Wallabies backs in history, having worn every jersey in the backline bar halfback.

He replaces Tom Banks at fullback who struggled to make an impact with ball-in-hand.

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Hodge was always considered a makeshift fly-half, but his solid and composed display at fly-half during their Bledisloe Cup win in Brisbane against the All Blacks saw him retained against the Pumas.

But Hodge’s lateral running and inexperience of controlling a Test came home to roost against the Pumas as the Wallabies failed to close out a match they should not have drawn.

It’s why Rennie hasn’t hesitated in recalling O’Connor at the first available time, with the 30-year-old now fit from separate leg and foot injuries.

"One thing about James is his ability to play really square and play on top of defences is excellent," Rennie told The Rugby Nation.

"When you look at Hodgey, I think he’s gone really well at 10, he’s been a little lateral though and that’s not easy when you’ve come from playing everywhere else but 10, but I think he’s made a pretty good fist of it.

"But what we know with Rabs (O'Connor) is he’ll ask a lot of questions of the defences and they won’t be able to push off as the Argentinians have been able to do in most Tests. They’ve defended really well - you’ve got to play on top of them."

The Wallabies must beat the Pumas by 101 points to wrestle the Tri Nations trophy off the All Blacks, who flew home to New Zealand earlier this week.

While the expected absence of three of their players, including sacked captain Pablo Matera and lineout specialist Guido Petti, will surely help the Wallabies’ quest, they’re aware that running in century against the 2015 World Cup semi-finalists will be a leap too far.

Yet, having not won their final Test of the year since 2013 the Wallabies are hoping to use the match as a “springboard” for 2021.

All week “springboard” has been the buzz word throughout camp, but for a young side developing their craft under a new coach that philosophy is very much the theme in Australian rugby at present.

Elsewhere, it’s expected that centres Hunter Paisami and Jordan Petaia will get the chance to build on their combination.

Tom Wright and Marika Koroibete are likely to keep their places on the wing too.

Up front, Allan Alaalatoa is likely to return at tight-head prop ahead of Taniela Tupou.

Lukhan Salakaia-Loto could also force his way back onto the bench after seemingly recovering from his syndesmosis injury that has forced him to miss the past two Tests.

The Wallabies will wear their Indigenous jersey for the second time this year in the Test.

On Wednesday afternoon the next generation of Wallabies, including Michael Hooper’s heir apparent Fraser McReight, showed off the jersey during a smoking ceremony in Redfern.

While McReight is unlikely to feature in the final team of the year, last year’s Junior Wallabies captain reflected the seriousness that the squad was approaching the final Test with.

“I think it's very important. The last time the Wallabies won their last Test match was 2013 I was reading, so to end on a positive note going into 2021, 2022 and the World Cup cycle, it would mean the world for the Wallabies,” he told reporters at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence.

“What's really important about this group is before the Test season started there was 16 (in the squad) players who hadn't played yet and now we've had I think eight to 10 debutants in a year, so obviously the coaching group have a special mindset going into the World Cup cycle.

“Obviously we're four years away from what we want to do, so a lot of building, a lot of progressing to that goal, which is the 2023 World Cup but we want to finish this year on a positive note by winning.”

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