Michael Hooper is the Wallabies 80-minute man. The 24-year-old flanker played the full 80 minutes in all eight Tests he started for Australia last year. Once Hooper’s on, he stays on.
With usual leader Stephen Moore often taking a breather late in the match it means that at some point in every Test Hooper is going to be captain. Yet he baulks at the description “co-captain”.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a case of sharing the captaincy,” he says. “Stephen’s very much the captain of the team and he does a great job leading us throughout the week, getting us prepared and he speaks very well in front of the team.
“For my part, when I do get the job of captain at the back end of games it’s just about knowing what Stephen and Cheik (Wallabies coach Michael Cheika) are thinking at that time.
“I know they back my judgement. But I need to be aligned with them as far as what they want at the end of games.”
Hooper is an experienced leader himself, captaining the Wallabies in 13 Tests in 2014, under then coach Ewen McKenzie, and also leading the NSW Waratahs to their maiden Super Rugby title the same year. Despite his experience he still admits to nerves before a match, especially prior to the huge clash between these two nations at last year’s Rugby World Cup.
In that crucial encounter he took over as captain at the 64th minute mark with the score evenly poised at 20-13, with just a converted try in it. Cheika clearly has faith in his No.7.
“I remember how it felt before and after the match more than anything else,” recalls Hooper. I was extremely nervous before the match. It was a huge game for both teams but a really big game for us to stamp our mark on the World Cup. It was our first game of the tournament at Twickenham, and that was important too.
“A lot of nerves were involved in the build-up . . . night game, going out there in the fireworks. It was a huge show and having to wait in the walkway before walking out into the stadium was seriously something I’ll remember.
“Obviously the elation and the happiness in the victory after the game was immense.”
The 33-13 triumph set Australia up for a run to the final where they eventually went down to New Zealand. Hooper is adamant however that the Twickenham victory has no bearing on tonight. Both teams have moved on.
“Probably the reason for England’s success in the Six Nations is because they’re moving forward . . . moving past that point in time,” notes Hooper. “I think they’ll want to isolate like us, that this is a unique competition. That it’s a good one to get over us, looking forward rather than looking behind. It’s a huge opportunity.
“I assume it’s hard to play out here as a visiting team when the crowds are good, and also because it is a lovely place to tour. They’re going to enjoy their trip. They’ll see it as a great three-game competition.”
Under new coach Eddie Jones, Hooper sees England as a very different proposition to the RWC 2015 version.
“I haven’t watched any of the Six Nations games,” he explains. “But from the reports I read here, they were very good performances. Solid performances. The bones of a good team were there in the World Cup. For whatever reason they just didn’t click. That’s certainly not the case now. England’s found what is getting it done for them . . . what’s working for them.
“It’s going to be a very good series here in Australia and it’s nice to be able to face them at home.”
Hooper is looking forward to matching up with the formidable English backrow.
“They are really good back-rowers . . . big guys who have big involvements in tackles and can disrupt ball in tackles and on the ground as well,” Hooper says. But he is conscious of strength throughout the forward pack.
“They are such a set piece team,” he said. “Scrums are massive for England. They’re important in international Rugby generally, but for England set piece is a huge thing. Their lineout is strong too. All their guys can win lineout ball.
“Their back-row is always going to be a threat. They’ve got great players there, whoever they decide to pick, but it’s going to be a hard set piece battle and the back-rowers will add a lot to that picture, too.”
Hooper has strong family connections to England. His father David was born in Kent, although Michael says these days his dad is a “100 percent Australian citizen now and has been more than half his life.”
Still, Hooper junior is looking forward to being part of the intense sporting rivalry when Australia and England meet.
“The great thing about the sporting rivalry between Australia and England is the fact that there are so many expatriates living in either country,” says Hooper. “There’s so many English out here in Australia and when you play over there, there’s so many Aussies over there.
“The history of both countries goes way back, and so does the sporting history. The years have developed really good rivalries in cricket and Rugby. I think we have the same humour as well. The back and forth, the banter. The will to win is really strong, too.”
Hooper also is conscious that with the Wallabies doing so well at last year’s RWC will raise expectations this season.
“It’s a different kind of pressure,” he acknowledges. “We have a lot of pressure on ourselves. We want to be the world’s best team. We want to play the best teams and England definitely qualifies. Every Test is a tough challenge.”
Hooper is confident Cheika and Moore are top operators when it comes to dealing with that pressure and getting the team aligned with its goals, and how to achieve them.
The 50-Test “veteran” also is refusing to look ahead to the black jerseys looming later in the year and the contests that most Wallabies fans would see as the prime objective in 2016.
“The Cook Cup is a start,” Hooper said. “Like Cheik said it is a stand-alone competition and the way we play will all be England focused. The coaches will be aiming at getting us right for England and England only.
“It will build confidence in the team and in the group, and it’s going to be a great spectacle for the fans before a Bledisloe series. There will be some carry-over, but initially it’s going to be all eyes on England and how we can get the job done there.”Get your 100 page souvenir Second Test program ON SALE at AAMI Park on Game day. Featuring Wallaby players Michael Hooper and Sean McMahon and everything you need to know about the Wallabies v England series. For orders contact editor on (02) 9263 9713