Rugby nerd Reece Hodge the Wallabies' version of Mr Cricket

A self-confessed rugby nerd, Reece Hodge has spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours watching rugby. As a child right through to his professional career, he's studied, analysed, and researched the game, the thirst for knowledge fueling a desire to be the best rugby player he can possibly be.

Hodge's obsession took hold while starting out with Manly Roos on Sydney's Northern Beaches. He would spend hours watching rugby on TV, waited patiently outside the grounds after games to get his idols' autographs and thrived off Wallabies player appearances at local coaching clinics. Even now, as a Wallabies player, he can't seem to drag himself away from the game, spending his weekends watching every Super Rugby match.

Hodge is something akin to Australian rugby's version of Mr Cricket -- a nickname given to former Test cricket star Mike Hussey for his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. Labelled a "nerd" by his Rebels teammate Matt Phillip ahead of the Wallabies' Tri-Nations clash with Argentina last year, Hodge has embraced the nerd tag, though maybe not 'Mr Rugby' just yet.

"I've been playing the game since I was six years old, I grew up watching a lot of rugby on TV and still to this day watch plenty of it," Hodge told ESPN. "Some guys like getting away from rugby on the weekends and days off, but as a fan I just love watching rugby.

"Last weekend I reckon I watched every game of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman [SRTT], so I mean if he [Matt Phillip] wants to call me a nerd based on those facts, that's up to him. But I love watching the game, I'm always learning about how to improve strategy - both as a team and individually - I don't think you can ever perfect the game, it's always a learning curve. Yeah, I'm happy to be called a rugby nerd.

"But I'll let you guys come up with the comparisons [with Mr Cricket]."

Hodge has unfortunately been sidelined since April after tearing his MCL at the death of the Rebels' clash with the Western Force. His Super Rugby campaigns over for 2021, Hodge has spent hours rehabbing in preparation for the Wallabies series against France next month, while also supporting his teammates the only way he can, by providing analysis.

After coach Dave Wessels stepped down following the Rebels' 3-5 Super Rugby AU season, the franchise has been left understaffed throughout SRTT, where they sit bottom of the table after three losses having scored just 43 points.

Unable to lace up a boot, Hodge has embraced his inner coach.

"I think this eight-week period for me away from playing has definitely allowed me to do a bit more analysis and try to help out," he said.

"Our coaching staff is a little bit understaffed at the moment without a couple of coaches we had at the start of the year, so I've really been trying to help out in terms of our attacking strategy and stuff like that. I enjoy watching vision and it's kept me busy over the last couple of months."

At 26, Hodge has plenty of time left in his playing career, so his mind hasn't quite turned to post-playing career opportunities just yet. But with his love for the game has grown a passion for educating the next generation of players and growing the game in Australia.

"Hopefully there's a lot of water to go under the bridge before then, hopefully I can hang on for at least another seven or eight more years," Hodge told ESPN.

"I definitely am passionate about helping the next generation of players come through in Australian rugby, so that could lead to a bit of a coaching role in the future, but there's plenty of time between now and then, so I've just got to keep learning and grow my own skillset before I start trying to coach other people."

Travelling to northern NSW in January to avoid the Northern Beaches COVID-19 lockdown in Sydney, Hodge spent his time training with local teams in Lennox Head. Naturally, with a current Wallaby back in town training, so too Australia assistant coach Scott Wisemantel, word soon travelled and players young and old were making the most of their expertise.

"I got stuck in the lockdown on the Northern Beaches in Sydney over Christmas and New Year and the loophole for me to get back into Melbourne was to get out of Sydney. So I spent a couple of weeks up in Northern NSW doing a bit of training with Scott Wisemantel who lives up at Lennox Head.

"We had a lot of youngsters come and join the training sessions. I wouldn't say I was doing too much coaching, but I was just interacting with some of the young club kids and aspiring rugby players up there. There was definitely a good community feel up there and it reminded me a lot of the Northern Beaches and kids just loving their sport. It was a good couple of weeks for me up there.

"It's definitely something that I enjoy as an athlete and as someone that plays for the Wallabies, I want that next generation of kids coming through to aspire to want to be rugby players, rather than NRL or AFL players, so it's definitely something that we enjoy as players, and love doing it going forward."

Having been in those same shoes himself as a kid, Hodge knew what the experience was like for those youngsters who'd wandered down to train at Lennox Head. Twenty years on and as a Wallaby himself, the buzz is still the same, even if he is on the other side.

"Seeing my idols growing up in Sydney, whether it was going to the games and waiting around for autographs after matches, or Wallabies players coming to local coaching clinics, that was the kind of stuff that I really thrived on and loved," Hodge told ESPN.

"I guess to be able to give back wherever possible to the next generation of youngsters out there is something I'm very passionate about and I know a lot of the other guys in the Wallabies set up and also at the Rebels are keen to help grow the game in Australia and do our part. It's definitely a massive part of our role."

Currently stuck in Melbourne through Victoria's COVID-19 lockdown, Hodge is working alongside the national coaches to find a way out of the city to ensure he is available for a possible call-up to Wallabies camp following the end of SRTT.

Thrust into different positions throughout his international career, Hodge has played at fullback, as a winger and in the centres before he played just his second game in the Wallabies No. 10 jersey against the All Blacks last year.

With James O'Connor out with injury and Noah Lolesio pushed to the bench, Hodge made the most of his time at fly-half during their fourth Test in the Bledisloe series, leading his side to a morale-boosting 24-21 win at Suncorp stadium.

Being the Wallabies fly-half was a dream come true, with Hodge telling ESPN the Bledisloe IV victory is one of his fondest memories; but he's happy to pull on any number if it means he's wearing the green and gold.

"I feel like I get asked this question about 10 times a year and my answer changes every time," Hodge joked. "I grew up playing a lot of 10, up until I was about 20/21 fly-half was my main position, so I did grow up wanting be in that 10 jersey for the Wallabies, so I guess to now have worn it three times and have that win against the All Blacks at Suncorp playing at 10 was pretty special and definitely up there in my memories of my rugby career to date.

"In saying that, my fallback answer that I give is that any time you get a chance to play for the Wallabies and pull on that green and gold is special, so beggars can't be choosers in that regard, we just have to wait and see what the coaches see in terms of my role in this upcoming series if I'm part of it."

Forever analysing, researching and improving his game, Hodge says you can never reach perfection, it's just one continual learning curve. But that's exactly what he loves and no amount of "nerd" sledges will stop him from continually coming back.