Payten column: Hooper pushing in all his chips on Aussie rugby

The Rugby Championship
Iain Payten.
by Iain Payten

A few hours after Michael Hooper stood in front of the cameras to talk about his historic five-year deal, the Wallabies skipper was on more familiar turf.

A big green rectangle with white lines on it.

Hooper was a couple of hundred metres away from Rugby Australia headquarters, running up and down a footy field on his down, doing endless 50 metre sprints with only a physio for company.

Increasingly stuffed but putting as much into the next sprint as he did the first, Hooper was out putting in the work to ensure he’d be good to lead the Wallabies in the opening Bledisloe Cup game in Sydney next weekend.

It was as good an insight into Michael Hooper as you’d get. 

Indeed, if you’d have asked Hooper earlier in the day why he was heading into Moore Park, he’d have only mentioned the 50s. Contract? Oh yeah, that too.

Apart from the fact Hooper is an incredible player, that work ethic - and umpteen other examples of unseen leadership - pretty much answers the “why five years?” question.

Or at least it does on behalf of Rugby Australia and NSWRU, and anyone involved in the Wallabies and the Waratahs. 

You get a chance to lock down an inspirational skipper like that long-term, you take it.

When it comes to the normal fears of a national or state union about long contracting - injury, form dropping off, off-field problems - there is simply no evidence of such risk with Hooper.

The fact he is increasingly a polished performer in front of those cameras? Another tick. And can be easily become the no.1 marketed player in the game? Tick. And is now a composed, erudite and respected leader within all his team environments? Tick once more.

Add all those up and five years is good business from RA and NSWRU. 

But it takes two to tango, so what of Hooper’s decision?

There is a reason five-year deals are more common in NRL and AFL, and even in American sports. They are sports played, by and large, in a captured market.

Big money can be made but only by moving inside those competitions, not away from it.

In rugby, the global market and its tempting riches not only make five-year deals in Australian extremely rare, it’s even getting less and less common to see three-year deals these days.

There are simply too many impatient and wealthy French club owners looking to sign a new star player. 

Tie in the fact Hooper signed a clean, Australian-rugby only deal - he will not be supplementing his income by playing in Japan during the off-season - and you have yourself the Hope Diamond of deals.

It is so rare there are probably more Dodos still around, waiting for a safe time to come back out.

Michael Hooper worked hard as usual. Photo: Getty ImagesSo why did Hooper sign a five-year deal, with none of the flexible side-gigs or sabbatical seasons so many of his teammates have taken in recent years?

Conservatively, the potential lost earnings of summers spent in Japan (and there are at least two clubs who chased him to do just that), Hooper left a few million bucks on the table.

Why? The answer can be found out on that football field, with Hooper busting his arse to be in best his possible shape to beat New Zealand.

To break that Bledisloe hoodoo and lift the Wallabies to the top of the pile. To get people buzzing about Aussie rugby again.

According to people close to Hooper, the flanker believes so much in Australian rugby he wanted his five-year deal to strongly symbolic. 

In the peak age of a career, and at the peak of his earning capacity, five years was Hooper pushing all chips in with Australian rugby.

Not spreading himself thin, taking a pay cheque overseas or playing an endless winter in different countries that will wear years off his body. 

For the next five years, Hooper will be out on an Australian field somewhere. Working.