MELBOURNE, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Rising Wallabies back Reece Hodge has re-signed with Australian rugby and the Melbourne Rebels until 2020 in a coup for the battling Super Rugby team.
The Rebels, operating in a rugby backwater in southern Victoria state, have struggled to lure and retain talent since joining the southern hemisphere competition in 2011.
However, Hodge's retention is a vote of confidence in the nation's youngest Super Rugby franchise which competes with over a dozen professional sports teams in Melbourne, the heartland of Australian Rules football.
The 22-year-old utility's extension also made him the first player to commit to the Wallabies beyond the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
A versatile player with a prodigious boot, Hodge enjoyed a stellar 2016, bagging two tries in his Super Rugby debut and making his first appearance for the Wallabies against New Zealand in August.
He started in nine of his 10 tests last year, playing on the wing initially before shifting to inside centre.
"Reece took his opportunity in 2016, showing he's got what it takes firstly in Super Rugby then at the test level," Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said in a Wallabies release.
"It's great to see young lads committing to long-term deals and I know Reece is very excited about the years ahead for both Melbourne and the Wallabies."
Hodge, named Australia's Super Rugby Rookie of the Year last season, said he expected a lot of the Rebels' "tight knit" playing group.
"The potential to be a part of some long-term success with the Rebels, who gave me my first opportunity at professional rugby, is pretty exciting," he said.
The Rebels, who won seven matches and finished 12th in the 18-team competition last year, are still seeking their maiden playoffs berth.
They kick off the new season at home to the Auckland Blues next week. (Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by John O'Brien)