By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Utility back Reece Hodge has rarely found himself kicking his heels on the bench in Super Rugby but the Melbourne Rebels’ “Mister Fix-it” will have to wait for his chance against the Otago Highlanders on Friday.
Hodge, named in the reserves for the home match, is being eased back after a frustrating four-month recovery from an ankle injury, during which he became thoroughly “sick” of watching the rest of the team train while being “flogged” at his own rehab sessions.
It marks only the second time the 33-test Wallaby will start on the bench during his tenure in Melbourne, the last time coming against the same New Zealand team during his first season in 2016 when he was coming back from a quadriceps injury.
Hodge has filled a variety of roles at the Rebels since, plugging holes in a backline that has often been short of hands due to injuries and a lack of depth.
But with new signing Quade Cooper at flyhalf and the backs functioning well in the season-opening win away to the ACT Brumbies, the 24-year-old is feeling pressure to raise his game.
“It’s pretty exciting to be able to add as much as I can to that mix but at the same time, they’re setting the standard,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Thursday.
“I’ve got to do a lot to force my way back into the starting team … At the moment I’m just happy to be back in the 23.”
The Rebels backline is now laden with Wallabies, with wingers Marika Koroibete and Jack Maddocks, scrumhalf Will Genia teaming up with Cooper in the halves, and captain Dane Haylett-Petty at fullback.
Flatter in attack, the backs produced three of the team’s five tries in the 34-27 win over the Brumbies, while missing a handful of other chances.
After coming off a bye, they will hope to be more clinical against the Highlanders, who are a perfect 2-0 in the new season after sneaking tough wins against the Queensland Reds last week and the Waikato Chiefs before.
The game against the Highlanders will present the Rebels with a chance to make up for a missed opportunity in the last round of the 2018 season when they let slip a 34-22 second half lead.
The 43-37 away loss cost Dave Wessels’ Rebels a maiden place in the playoffs and they have had seven months to chew over the disappointment.
Hodge starred that day with a hat-trick of tries and scored 29 of the Rebels’ points, so the Highlanders may be glad to see him warming the bench at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium.
“I don’t think anyone looks back with distaste toward the Highlanders or anything like that,” said Hodge.
“At the end of the day, our destiny was in our own hands and unfortunately we came up a little bit short.
“I think we’ve kind of brushed that … It’s a new season and we’re looking to hopefully go two from two.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)