Reds' rural roots on show as Hoopert makes run-on debut

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

When Harry Hoopert donned the socks of the Dalby Wheatmen in the Reds' club round at Suncorp Stadium a few weeks ago, he wasn't just paying homage to one of the best-named rugby clubs in the country.

The product of Jondaryan, a town of about 380 inhabitants on the Warrego Highway between Toowoomba and Dalby, is fiercely proud of his rural roots and the area he represents when he pulls on the famous maroon jersey.

And the midnight oil will be burning across the Darling Downs on Friday night when Hoopert makes his run-on debut  for the Reds against one of the biggest packs in super Rugby.

In a massive show of faith from Reds coach Brad Thorn, the 20-year-old has been named to start at loosehead prop against the Sharks as the Reds chase their first win in Durban in more than a decade.

At 111kg and 191cm, Hoopert is a raw-boned colt compared to his opponent, Springbok veteran Coenie Oosthuizen.

But he has been preparing for this moment for the past 18 months, literally butting heads with men years his senior.

"I remember last year, it was my first proper year of pre-season and Ruan (Smith) and Taniela (Tupou) were touching me up a fair bit but now it's starting to get a bit more even," he said.

Reds prop Harry Hoopert celebrates a Queensland try. Photo: QRU Media/Brendan Hertel

"I'm clawing my way back up, this pre-season's put in a good shape."

Hoopert is now a Super Rugby professional, one of a new wave of young players determined to help the Reds once again become a force in the sport.

But it hasn't always been that way.

As a youngster growing up in Jondaryan, Hoopert's aim was just to have fun.

One of five children, including three older siblings and a twin brother, Hoopert played rugby from a young age for Dalby's Wheatmen.

Unlike his Reds front row mentors, the identical Smith twins, flame-haired Hoopert and blonde twin Jarred are easily told apart - and in their early years, the difference was in their temperament as much as their looks.

"He was more the hard-working one, I was more the one having fun and cruising through, doing the running," Hoopert said.

"He was more hitting the rucks and doing the dirty work."

Harry Hoopert (left) in action for Brothers in Queensland Premier Rugby. He missed going head-to-head with his twin when University of Queensland tighthead Jarred injured his ACL. Photo: QRU Media/Brendan Hertel

A centre and flyhalf in his early junior days, a broken ankle at age 12 forced Hoopert into the forwards, first at no.8 before he eventually made the shift to the front row.

The moves were made geographically too, first from primary school in Jondaryan, to the bigger Dalby and then to the big smoke of Toowoomba where the twins finished high school at Toowoomba Grammar.

Hoopert made the Queensland and Australian U20 teams and his move to Brisbane almost led to the twins literally locking horns in club rugby before an ACL injury ended tighthead prop Jarred's first grade career.

He still went on to win a Downs Rugby premiership with the Wheatmen in 2016, playing alongside committee-member Daniel Merker.

The Downs Rugby competition contains teams from throughout the a huge region, from Gatton in the east, to Goondiwindi in the south and Roma, in the west, with almost 400km between some clubs.

It's a huge commitment to the sport, but one that's worth it. It's probably dying a little bit but it's still hanging in there," Merker said of the sport on the Downs.

Hoopert's selection for the Reds has been a huge fillip for the area though.

"I think we're all proud of how far Harry's gone, he's definitely helped put the Wheatmen on the rugby map," Merker said.

Former Dalby player Harry Hooopert poses with the young Wheatmen who played at halftime of a recent Reds game at Suncorp Stadium. Photo: Harry Hoopert (left) in action for Brothers in Queensland Premier Rugby. He missed going head-to-head with his twin when University of Queensland tighthead Jarred injured his ACL. Photo: Reds prop Harry Hoopert celebrates a Queensland try. Photo: QRU Media/Brendan Hertel

"(Everyone at the club) try and keep up to date with how he's going and make sure he's going well.

"They're so proud to follow his progress, especially at such a young age to be playing in the front row."

And Hoopert's doing his bit too, happy to help where he can.

"Within the last six weeks or so, he and Samu Kerevi came out and did a clinic which was great," Merker said.

"The kids absolutely loved that.

"And a couple of weeks ago, the U11s got to play on Suncorp at halftime of the Reds game.

"We saw on Fox Sports all the Wheatmen jerseys running around and getting photos with Harry.

"(Playing for the Reds) hasn't gone to his head and he hasn't forgotten where he came from.

"He's always checking up to see how our footy's going too. He's still got a couple of mates out here who he played juniors with, so he hasn't forgotten where he's come from."

Young Reds Harry Hoopert (left) and James Tuttle after playing NRC for Queensland Country. Photo: QRU Media/Brendan Hertel

The family grain farm at Jondaryan was a sanctuary for young Hoopert, who formed a love of the outdoors and sport that led to his passion for rugby.

And as he watched the Reds march to Super Rugby glory, the seed of another dream was being planted.

"Back in 2011, I remember sitting back in Dalby and watching the grand final and it was pretty cool to watch that," Hoopert said.

"Ever since then I was like: I want to be there one day."

He's there now and benefiting from the experience of another pair of Toowoomba Grammar graduates in the Smith twins.

The South African-born brothers have established a "parliament" of forwards at the Reds, a pack gathering where eating meat and talking rubbish are the order of the day.

And they have taken Hoopert and many of his young teammates under their wings.

"Hoops gained his place off the bench and I really think he's one for the future," said JP Smith, who will come off the bench against the Sharks.

Harry Hoopert with a young Reds fan. Photo: QRU Media/Brendan Hertel

"I think, they're slowly trying to build him and get him there and the depth we have, even with big Feao (Fotuaika), we haven't had that much loosehead depth for a couple of years now.

"Me and my brother really try to help where we can. Hoops really wants to learn a lot and you can clearly see it's paying off for him.

"And in the next couple of years when he develops, he's going to be a really, really good player."

Almost the entire Reds' pack to face the Sharks has graduated through the Queensland U20 ranks and Hoopert knows the potential the young side has if it can stay together.

"I think there's about seven of us that came through the U20s together - Hocko (Harry Hockings) Fraser (McReight),  Tate (McDermott), (Liam Wright), me, (Angus) Scott-Young.

"If we keep these boys around, we can definitely make a big impact in the next couple of years."

It's something all of the Darling Downs rugby community is hoping for too.

Liam Wright on the charge against the Bulls in Pretoria. Photo: AFP

"It'd be really good to just see him get through his youth, touch-wood, injury free, because he's got such a big role to play," said Merker - noting the Easter public holidays would come in handy for those folk looking to stay up to watch Hockings in South Africa this weekend.

"And I guarantee you the whole rugby community here and the club are right behind him and so proud of how far he's come."

The Reds take on the Sharks at Kings Park in Durban on Friday, April 19, at 11:05 pm AEST, broadcast LIVE on FOX SPORTS.