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Hodge in shutdown mode leaves little to give in attack

If - sorry - when the Wallabies make the semi-finals next year, you won't want to be anywhere in the world but Tokyo. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Expert
16th August, 2018
53

Nick Cummins would tell Reece Hodge he’s gunna be busier than a one-armed bricklayer in Baghdad… with an itch.

And the Honey Badger would know about having his hands full given the latest star of The Bachelor only recently stepped out of a house full of 25 women sizing him up for a shot at love. Or fleeting fame.

In fact, it’s difficult to know what would be the most demanding – physically and psychologically – between ‘The Badgelor’s’ gig and the assignment Hodge has been handed on Saturday night.

Hodge will play at outside centre for the first time in his Test career when the Wallabies take on the All Blacks in Sydney.

Remarkably, the 23-year-old Melbourne Rebels utility has already made 27 Test appearances but this season’s Bledisloe Cup opener will be his first wearing the No 13 jersey.

Wallaby Joe Powell celebrates with Reece Hodge

It’s a daunting task, and one that’s come about due to injuries to midfield specialists Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani.

Outside centre is often considered the most difficult position to defend, mostly from scrums and line-outs, and its challenges are exacerbated when you’ve got the world’s best fullback – live-wire Kiwi No.15 Ben Smith – hitting the line at speed.

Earlier in the week, All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster was up front about his team’s plan to target Hodge in defence.

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The traffic heading Hodge’s way will be as heavy as that typically around ANZ Stadium on game day, especially given they’ve picked a well-connected centre combination of Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue from the Super Rugby title-winning Crusaders.

Goodhue is raw – it will be only his second Test having made his All Blacks debut in the third Test against France in June.

But he’s rugged and busy and sure to give Hodge a torrid time.

The defensive demands at outside centre, which Hodge himself admitted to this week, makes me feel that he’ll have little to give when it’s time to attack.

He’ll be on such high alert without the ball that his running game will be dialled down.

Hodge’s defence-heavy mindset means much will be expected from Beale and Folau in attack, although it’s a similar set-up at the Tahs in which they dominate the go-forward and line-breaks on the edges.

Not that Hodge’s selection is a poor one from Michael Cheika.

Curtis Rona, even if he spent much of the Super Rugby season outside Waratahs and Wallabies No.12 Kurtley Beale, didn’t show enough to warrant Bledisloe selection.

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The other reasonable option would be moving Israel Folau from fullback to outside centre. It seems Folau doesn’t want to have any other jersey except the No.15, and with contract negotiations ongoing, it seems at Rugby Australia that now is not the time to rock the boat and risk losing him overseas or back to the NRL.

The All Blacks say they’ll target Hodge, but they could take aim at any other area of the field and feel like they’ve got a comfortable advantage.

Perhaps that’s overly pessimistic from a Wallabies fan. Defeatist. Droughts that stretch 16 years have that effect.

But again they’ve picked a bruising pack. Kieran Read is underdone, but Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Joe Moody and Sam Cane set the tone and over the years have consistently bullied Australia’s forwards.

They’ve got two wingers – Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane – that are as big as backrowers and pop up all over the field. Many reckon Beauden Barrett has been a bit off, but he won’t have too many below-par games in a row.

Brodie Retallick New Zealand Rugby Union All Blacks 2017

The depth in New Zealand rugby means there are plenty top-notch players coming off standout Super Rugby seasons that are snapping at the heels of the All Blacks starters.

The Wallabies’ only chance of competing is if they get something close to parity in the tight five. Adam Coleman, Izack Rodda and Lukhan Tui will need to provide the aggression without handing over a glut of penalties, which can be their weakness.

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Similarly off the bench, Tolu Latu and Taniela Tupou are big on energy and impact but often low on discipline. The June Tests – on both sides of the Tasman – proved that sin-bins and send-offs are in vogue and game-changing.

The All Blacks and Winx are both at $1.20 to win on Saturday. It wouldn’t feel right trying to make if just a few bucks by backing the All Blacks to beat the Wallabies, but getting on the Kiwis is probably a safer bet than putting cash on the champion mare on a 25-race winning streak.

Who knows what the All Blacks’ odds to take down the Wallabies at Eden Park next weekend will be. Like Winx running in a mid-weeker at Muswellbrook?!