Wallabies coach Michael Cheika is considering using Reece Hodge’s strength and skills in the centres in a backline reshuffle for Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup clash with the All Blacks in Auckland.
Cheika has kept the All Blacks guessing, delaying his team naming until the eve of the final trans-Tasman showdown of the year.
As well as agonising over whether or not to thrust rookie locks Rory Arnold and Adam Coleman into the Eden Park cauldron or recalling the reliable second-row pairing of Kane Douglas and chief lineout caller Rob Simmons, Cheika is toying with the idea of maximising Hodge’s value.
The Wallabies have been super impressed with the young Melbourne Rebels utility since his international debut earlier this year and may shift the 22-year-old into his preferred inside centre position.
Defence coach Nathan Grey said playing Hodge at No12 in a powerful midfield role that former captain Stirling Mortlock once filled with great success was “definitely” an option.
“We’ve been trying guys in different combinations at training and trying to find the best ways to maximise the talents of the guys that we have,” Grey said.
“He’s got a lot of experience playing in that position at Super Rugby.
“He’s a big body, carries the ball very well and he’s got a good passing game that he uses, and he’s got good speed.
“All those attributes are very positive to have in a No12. He defends there at No12 anyway for us so he’s used to being in that environment.”
But moving Hodge to the midfield would necessitate either dropping Bernard Foley to the bench – or relegating Quade Cooper and restoring Foley to five-eighth.
If Hodge is shifted, either Henry Speight or fellow Fiji-born flyer Sefa Naivalu would replace him on the wing.
Israel Folau is again likely to start at fullback despite more calls for the two-time John Eales Medallist to be shifted to outside centre.
Nick Phipps is expected to replace Will Genia after the in-form halfback’s return to his French club commitments, though Cheika could decide to give Nick Frisby a start.
Cheika has shuffled his second row all year, mixing and matching Coleman and Arnold with Simmons, Douglas, Sam Carter and Will Skelton.
He worked Douglas and Simmons in tandem at Thursday’s training session in Sydney, alternating the experienced duo with first-year internationals Coleman and Arnold.
Coleman and Arnold started in Australia’s last-up win over Argentina at Twickenham but staring down the world champions for the first time together – on their home turf and at a venue where they are unbeaten against all comers since – is a whole new proposition.
Cheika is also weighing up whether to rush star loose forward David Pocock straight back into his starting line-up after a month out following hand surgery.
Lopeti Timani started at No8 against the Pumas, but Cheika is likely to revert to a back row of Pocock, Hooper and either Scott Fardy or fellow lineout option Dean Mumm as blindside flanker.