Reece's numbers game

The Wallabies and South Africa made history as the first International event at Allianz Stadium

In the dying minutes of the second-last game of the 1989 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, played in Newcastle four days after the third Test match, NSW Country Cockatoos re-enacted ‘Gallipoli’.

From the back of a scrum on the Lions’ 22m line, Cockatoos scrum half Rob Long popped a ball for hard-charging winger Dwayne Vignes who attempted to run - literally - “over the top” of the Lions forward pack by first hurdling up and over the back of his own.

Read the official Bledisloe Cup program here!

Gravity and balance brought Vignes down before referee David Kennedy decided that it was not quite the done thing and No.8 Derek White, a Scotsman described as “a big bulky back-row with pace and a mean streak”, looked to slipper Vignes for impertinence.

The move was the brainchild of legendary bush coach Daryl Haberacht who also thought up the famous ball ‘Up The Jumper’ ploy that NSW Country used with great effect to score against Sydney at TG Milner Field in 1975.

The Lions held on to win 72-13 in Newcastle that day and the trick play resided only as visual images in the memories of those at the ground and anyone who heard Gordon Bray call it on ABC-TV - at least until YouTube came along and allowed everyone to see everything all the time.

For just as video killed the radio star and evocative tall story-telling in pubs, it’s also killed much chance of a trick play pulling anyone’s proverbial pants down, certainly in Test match Rugby, where the players can study dossiers of any opponent’s habitual human movement.

Not to say they aren’t having a crack at cracking through the aptly-named ‘walls’ of highly-trained, advancing bouncers that make a Test match defensive line, as Wallabies utility (more on that later) Reece Hodge explains.

“There’s usually a couple of plays that we think will work against certain opposition. I wouldn’t call them ‘trick’ plays. But obviously there is an element of analysis of the opposition. And we see trends where opportunities might be both attacking and in defence,” Hodge says.

Hodge points to a play in the first eToro Rugby Championship Test match against South Africa.

“We scored a try when Noah Lolesio went through on an inside ball from James Slipper and then linked up with Fraser McReight to score. That was something we practised.

“So, definitely, there’s tweaks you can make week to week. And hopefully we can exploit them [against the All Blacks] this week,” Hodge says.

Granted, chunky-loosehead-prop-popping-ball-inside-for-flying-fly-half-to-link-with-scavenging-backrow-forward isn’t exactly hiding the ball up a jumper and hurdling a scrum like you’re going over the top at Gallipoli.

But it’s nice to know they’re having a go.

A Wallabies game plan and plays are decided in meetings on a Monday of a Test match week (or the Saturday of a Thursday night one).

They gather in various groups and nut out attack, counter-attack, defence, among other things. Hodge, a 28-year-old veteran of 59 Tests, is in most of these groups.

“I kind of float between a couple of them,” he says. “It’s always nice to have players and coaches collaborate on where they see opportunities and how we can exploit those opportunities.

“Week to week we work on a style of play and a game model that’s about growing our game and doing the basics well. And also using our skill set within our structure,” Hodge says.

Hodge concedes the Wallabies were “very poor” in the second Rugby Championship Test against South Africa. 

“In first phase execution; we got turned over a few times.

“It highlights that the top 10 international teams can beat anyone on their day. You have to be at your best to win … and you have to back up after a win. You’re playing the same opposition and they’re reviewing hard after a loss. And they’re going to be extra motivated to come out and get a result.”

Hodge says it’s where the Wallabies are now.

“We’ve had to wait two weeks since the last loss to the Springboks, which was obviously very disappointing. And hopefully we can be at our best and force the All Blacks to be below their best,” Hodge says.

The Kiwis are the proverbial wounded beast, their country in mourning at their lowest ebb in a generation. And as they say about wounded beasts it’s best to stick a great spear in them while they’re down.

Yet ask Hodge or any of the Wallabies about any opponent – particularly the Bledisloe-owning blighters across the ditch - and they’ll tell you they’re just focusing on themselves. It’s sporto speak 101: give ‘em nothing they can pin up on a dressing room wall.

Hodge doesn’t buy the ‘wounded beast’ thing anyway.

“Their last game they won by 50 points. So they weren’t too wounded then. You know, they’re obviously capable of beating anyone in world Rugby and they’re still a really quality side.

“I think one thing that we can take out of it, is the fact that when teams have put them under pressure and consistently throughout the game this year, sometimes they’ve had good results through that.

“Our focus is very much on how we can do things and how much pressure that we can put on them rather than I guess focusing too much on their performance is probably how we can influence theirs,” Hodge explains.

As has been documented, Hodge can play any position in the backline bar scrum half. As for any ‘utility’ it can be gold nugget and lodestone. It means he’s been asked about his preferred position so often he’s got a prepared statement. He could get a T-shirt made up.

“It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot and I give the same answer each time: It depends on the game situation and the opposition.

“Any time I pull on the gold jersey it’s a privilege and something that I treasure. It doesn’t matter what number it is.”

He’s always going to say that right? Let’s lightly prod. He’d prefer that number wasn’t 23, right?

Hodge laughs. “Yeah, that is right.”

What number jumper Hodge will be wearing in this Test match at Marvel Stadium was unclear at time of writing. Well, Hodge knows. But he’s not telling anybody (It wasn't 23, although he still ended up being selected on the bench in jersey 22).

“I do know,” he says. “But I don’t think we’re allowed to let on.”

“What – is it a secret?” we ask.

Hodge laughs and says: “Well – yeah, it is.”

Maybe there are some tricks left.

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