IT'S been a big week for Waratahs recruit Michael Hodge.
On Tuesday he was unveiled as one of three fresh young faces in the province's 2013 line-up and tomorrow he takes the field for Sydney University in the Shute Shield grand final against Southern Districts.
The 23-year-old versatile back is yet another example, alongside Sydney Uni and now-Waratahs teammates Paddy Ryan, Tom Kingston, Jeremy Tilse and Tom Carter, of the value of a strong club competition.
It was the Shute Shield that kept Hodge in rugby between stints in the ARU's national training squad as a teenager, a Sevens call-up two years ago and an introduction to the Waratahs during the 2012 pre-season.
''It's really difficult for a kid to go from out of school to playing professional rugby, so I think Shute Shield is a really good step in that development,'' he said. ''There are obviously exceptions - look at Kurtley [Beale], James O'Connor, they're great players who were probably ready at that age - but I think a lot of kids probably have to play at that [club] level before they go to professional rugby.''
Hodge's Waratahs audition came after an exceptional 2011 season with Sydney Uni, marred only by the club's grand final loss to Eastwood.
He was voted the club's players' player of the year and was later invited to spend the pre-season at Moore Park, playing in the Waratahs' trial matches against Samoa and Tonga in February this year.
Hodge said the few months he spent in a professional set-up helped him to rediscover his hunger.
''I worked a lot with [assistant coach Scott Bowen] and they just said keep going at it, go back to club footy, keep playing,'' he said.
''I learnt so much and I loved it, I think that's when I realised that this was something I wanted to pursue and have a crack at.''
Another year with Uni also allowed Hodge to all but finish his education degree and have another crack at a grand final.
''To [lose to Eastwood] was pretty tough but it's made us so much more hungry this year, it drives you to try harder,'' he said.
''We maybe mightn't have done things the way we should have towards the end of last year so we're making sure we prepare properly so everything's ready to go.''
Intent on spoiling the team's second-chance fairytale is a Southern Districts side that is also stacked with Waratahs.
John Ulugia, Lopeti Timani, Grayson Hart and Atieli Pakalani will run on for the Rebels' first grand final after a season that cemented their reputation as a squad on the rise.
''From one to 15 they're really strong … any loose balls and they'll make you pay, and they're a big pack with a really strong set piece,'' Hodge said.
The clubs are a win each after playing each other twice this season. It is shaping as a battle between the established elders and the upstarts with a point to prove.
''[Southern Districts] are going to have a lot of passion and really want it, but we're definitely prepared … both games were really exciting and expansive so we're in for a good game,'' Hodge said.