| MELBOURNE, Sept 9
MELBOURNE, Sept 9 Travelling a long way in a short time, Reece Hodge's rugby career has had a similar trajectory to one of his monster kicks at goal, and has impressed Wallabies coach Michael Cheika enough to take a punt on the rookie back against South Africa this weekend.
Twelve months ago, as the Wallabies completed a nerve-jangling win over the Springboks in their last Brisbane clash, Hodge was toiling in relative obscurity for the Manly Marlins in Sydney's local Shute Shield competition.
At Lang Park on Saturday, the 22-year-old will line up on the left wing for his first start in the gold jersey after making his debut off the bench against New Zealand two weeks ago.
In a forgettable night for the Wallabies, Hodge provided one of the few highlights in the 29-9 defeat in Wellington when he effortlessly slotted a first-half penalty from about 54 metres.
It underlined his reputation as a super-boot after he posted a video of himself on social media last year hoofing one over from 76 metres with a tail-wind at Manly Oval.
His prodigious right foot offers Cheika another option apart from Bernard Foley who can struggle off the tee from long range.
"Whether it's coincidence or not, we've found when the distance of our kicker (Bernard Foley) is 40-45 metres, we're getting a lot of penalties in the zone just outside that," Cheika told local media this week.
"Now the option is there to have a crack."
Length off the tee is just one string in Hodge's bow.
Making his Super Rugby debut for the Melbourne Rebels in February, Hodge finished his rookie season with eight tries, eclipsing Cooper Vuna's previous team record of seven in a single campaign.
His outstanding two-try debut against Perth's Western Force was emblematic of his season, as he started at full-back but moved into the key playmaker role at times after team mates went down with injuries.
Hodge's versatility and endurance in his first season would prove a blessing to coach Tony McGahan who often struggled to field a fit match-day 23.
"He's been asked to play a number of roles, he's played fullback, he's played wing, centre and a little bit of 10 through the season," McGahan told Reuters.
"So for a young player to be able to handle going back and forth with the injuries that we had and each week turn up has been impressive."
At Lang Park, Hodge will aptly fill the boots of Adam Ashley-Cooper, the utility back known as the Wallabies' 'Mr. Fixit' for his ability to plug holes in the backline.
Named on the bench in Wellington, Hodge's test debut came earlier than anticipated when a groggy Ashley-Cooper came off in the 16th minute with a head-knock.
With his team struggling to maintain possession in Wellington, Hodge's impact was limited and he admitted that simply being in the team was a reality check.
"Playing test rugby this year is not something I ever expected when I went down to Melbourne this year when my aim was just to make the Rebels team week-to-week," he told local media.
"Playing 60 minutes off the bench in Wellington has definitely helped for this week.
"Now I'm in the Wallabies I can't take it as a surprise anymore, I've got to cement my spot." (Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)