MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Reece Hodge has been at the heart of a gloomy season for Australian rugby but the versatile back sees a bright future for a young Wallabies team two years out from the 2019 World Cup.
The 23-year-old is one of 21 players Michael Cheika has blooded over the past two seasons as the coach looks to build a side capable of going one better in Japan after their runners-up finish in England in 2015.
The regeneration continues apace.
Hooker Jordan Uelese so impressed in his debut in the 23-23 draw against South Africa in Perth last week that the 20-year-old kept former captain Stephen Moore out of the matchday squad for Saturday’s match against Argentina.
Rugby league convert Marika Koroibete could be the 22nd player to debut if the Fiji-born winger gets a run off the bench in the Rugby Championship test at Canberra Stadium.
The rebuild has yet to pay dividends, however, with the Wallabies chasing their first win in the fourth round of the tournament after starting it with back-to-back to losses to the All Blacks.
Hodge, though, has seen some encouraging signs from within the playing group.
“We didn’t go into the Rugby Championship expecting to lose,” he told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
“In patches we’ve played the way we’ve wanted to play and restricted the other team but also had momentary lapses which have probably let us down in terms of getting the result.
“This year there’s been a massive breakthrough for the squad, there’s been a lot of new talent blooded in the past 12-18 months and I think it’s quite exciting in the journey toward the 2019 World Cup.
“But I guess in saying that, we can’t look too far ahead.”
Since playing his rookie season of Super Rugby last year, Sydney-born Hodge has hardly looked back.
He was drafted into Cheika’s Wallabies squad on the strength of only a few months at the Melbourne Rebels and made his debut against the All Blacks in Wellington last year.
A wise head on young shoulders, Hodge was elevated to the Rebels captaincy this year and will line up for his 17th test against the Pumas.
It hasn’t all been rosy for the former Manly Marlins back, as he led the Rebels through a dreary, injury-plagued campaign.
He and his provincial team mates played with uncertainty over their futures as the Australian Rugby Union decided whether to cut the Rebels or the Western Force from Super Rugby as part of a commitment to shrink the competition next season.
The ARU ultimately decided to keep the Rebels and the Force’s axing was confirmed by a court decision last month.
While a relief for the Rebels players, Hodge said the demise of the Force was still a sore point in the squad, even with plans for the launch of a new Indo-Pacific tournament in 2018 that could provide a lifeline for the Perth team’s players.
“There hasn’t been too much chat about it and I guess it’s all still pretty raw with the stuff that’s gone on with the Force,” Hodge said of the conceptual competition being pushed by Western Australian mining tycoon Andrew Forrest.
“Obviously up until last week we were still hoping they would be in Super Rugby and we’d have five teams.
“I guess if (the organisers) work together with the ARU it could be a good development down the track.
“At this stage it’s pretty early days and I think it’s all sort of hearsay at the moment.”
The Rebels’ injury woes had a silver lining in that they gave Hodge plenty of experience in different backline positions as he was moved around to plug gaps.
Capable of playing anywhere from flyhalf back and with a thumping place-kick capable of slotting penalties from halfway and beyond, Hodge will be lining up on the wing on Saturday.
His preferred inside centre position has been taken by Kurtley Beale, who has been in such impressive form that Hodge has been happy to make way for the playmaker.
“Enthusiasm is one thing (he brings) but I think he’s someone that never sees failure,” said Hodge.
“That confidence rubs off on other players ... We want to make sure he’s not on his own, though, in the games to come.”
Editing by Nick Mulvenney