How Michael Hooper avoided halfback and hit 100 games for NSW

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

To understand how Michael Hooper has come to be playing his 100th game for NSW on Saturday night, you first have to understand how he played his first. And why.

And to do that, you have to know why Hooper was talked about as a halfback option for the Brumbies - in the same season he debuted for the Wallabies as a flanker.

The year was 2012 and Hooper was about to commence his third season in Canberra. 

The blond-haired Manly prodigy had been recruited to the nation’s capital straight out of school, with the promise of a full contract and a mentor called George Smith.

As a youngster Hooper was played sparingly over the next two years but he was happy and fully expecting to play his career out as a Brumby.

But after the exit of Andy Friend in 2011 and the interim tenure of Tony Rea, the arrival of Jake White changed everything.

White was a former World Cup-winning Springboks coach and in his proven playbook the no.7 jersey was best worn by a third giant lump loosie - and not by a “fetcher” in Hooper’s mould.

A former Brumbies player recalled this week a conversation with an assistant coach about who could cover halfback given Nic White had had shoulder surgery over summer. The names of diminutive winger Robbie Coleman and Hooper were mentioned.

“May as well because Jake won’t start him with his size,” came the reasoning.

The story goes White called the then 19-year-old into his office in the pre-season and cut to the chase.


“I am not sure what to do with you Michael,” White said. “Compared to South Africans, you are only a boy.”

The comment stung and when the 2012 season rolled around, White’s stuck fast to the Springbok philosophy.

For the first three rounds of the Super Rugby season, White handed the Brumbies no.7 to 119kg behemoth Ita Vaea.

Hooper’s form off the bench forced White to relent eventually, and he wore the no.7 for the Canberra team in round four and for most of the rest of the season. Later that year he debuted off the bench for Australia in the infamous Scotland game in Newcastle as well.

“It was a worry,” Hooper said later in 2012 on his non-selection by White.

“I wasn’t in the team for the first two (Super Rugby) games, but then I got my shot.

“We ended up having a really good partnership and he guided me well this year. But yeah, if you have said at the start of the season I’d be playing this game, I’d have said you’re lying.”

Hooper would end up finishing third on the John Eales medal voting, despite playing half the Tests of most others.

White’s selections in the first three rounds had cracked open a window of alternative futures for Hooper.

He'd begun contemplating a move back home to Sydney, and talks led to a deal with NSW being agreed by the end of April.

In a belated compliment, White would later recruit David Pocock to replace Hooper at the Brumbies.

Michael Cheika signed on soon after Hooper and two years later the Manly boy held up the Super Rugby trophy in sky blue at ANZ Stadium.

It's now seven years later and Hooper will mark his 100th Super Rugby game for NSW, to go with his 31 as a Brumby, when he leads out the Waratahs against the Rebels at the SCG.

The Brumbies have fared okay with that “replacement” called Pocock but the quality of the man who thought he’d be in Canberra for life is seen in the fact Hooper has won the Matt Burke Cup for NSW’s best and fairest in five of his six completed seasons at the club.

“It's often said if you had 15 like him you'd never lose and I think what we could all learn is from his approach and his mindset and his approach to preparation and the game,” Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson says.

"That's no mistake that he's got to where he's got to through that excellent preparation as a professional. And he's got many more years ahead of him. he's still a young man, so hopefully  - won't be me standing here when he's played his 200th but certainly be great, something he can achieve.

"I think that's also been the major growth when I've been here is his development as a leader. He's really stepped into that space and really - with your top performers, they want to be the best at whatever role they've been given. He's very driven to make sure he is the best leader he can be.”

Bernard Foley remembers well Hooper arriving at the Waratahs in 2013 but mostly because of the frostiness.

"My only experience with him was playing against him in second grade (for Sydney Uni against Manly in 2010) and I actually sprayed him (about) him being the superstar and getting beaten," Foley laughed.

"I didn’t realise he’d just come from 12 weeks of injury and it was his first game back. It was understandable but our relationship got off to a rocky start.

"He had a big chip on his shoulder when he came back. He always said “I think it was you wasn’t it” and he tried to chase me around the field. We didn’t start well but we got over that pretty quickly."

Foley said Hooper had been "lost down in Canberra but he has found his home down here.”

"He has been massive for us. He has probably been the soul of the club since he has come back. He has won that many Matt Burke Cups. He has led the side in only his second year back to a Championship,” Foley said.

"He has been a great example for a lot of young kids who have come through and played with.

"My favourite memory is just how he buries himself so much in games. Then he pulls his head out of a ruck and his eyes are going every which way.

"But he is doing it for the team and all the other players. He will leave a great legacy at this club.”