Hoopert's homecoming to reignite his Reds career

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

When Harry Hoopert returns to Dalby for Friday night's blockbuster trial between the Reds and Waratahs, he'll be taking the first steps towards what he hopes will be a super season for Queensland, as well as his return from what initially seemed a career-threatening injury.

Hoopert was left with a bulging disc in his neck after an attempted tackle in the Reds' match against the Chiefs in Hamilton last May, forcing him out of the final three matches of the season.

As encouraging as his comeback is after he re-injured his neck during the NRC season, it's unlikely to be the focus on Friday night.

Hoopert grew up on the family farm in Jondaryn, just over a 20 minute drive from the ground where Friday's trial will take place and played in the blue and gold of the Dalby Wheatmen growing up.

Few things can unite a small town like a footy club and Hoopert's visit to Dalby - as well as Roma and Chinchilla - during the Reds to Regions tour last November, underlined the team's importance in the area.

During a visit to a local school with Hamish Stewart, the pair talked to Year 8 students before being paraded before almost every junior class, where the local players - boys and girls - had the chance to take pictures with their heroes, with the call of "Wheatmen" replacing the traditional "cheese" ahead of the click of phones and cameras.

Friday's match plays and important role for the Reds and Waratahs as their final hit-out ahead of the Super Rugby opener.

But it is just as important for the people of the Darling Downs, who have had precious little to cheer about recently thanks to drought and fire.

As was the case last week in Gladstone, rain is forecast for match day and the Reds won't be complaining if that eventuates.

"I think the farmers would be pretty happy if we got flooded out to get some income in," Hoopert said.

"I think they'd be happy with any rain at the moment."

The Hoopert farm at Jondaryn received about 50ml last week - a welcome respite but not enough to plant a grain crop for the first time in more than a year.

"I think we need pretty much a flood to be able to plant again," Hoopert said.

"Mum and dad have been watering the front yard to make it look green (due to the team visiting en masse this week) but everything else is pretty much dead. Last time I was there, you'd stand on the grass and it just crumbles under your feet, it was pretty bad."

The Reds' statewide pre-season tour has given every member of the team an idea of what everyday Queenslanders are facing - something coach Brad Thorn passionately believes will help his team dig deep in games as they think of who they are representing.

"I think it's just getting perspective on how bad it actually is out west and up north," Hoopert said.

"I know for country blokes like myself, we know what it's like from the years we've been at home but for the city slickers, it's just to show them what it actually looks like.

"Being with those families they talk about the effect it has on them financially, emotionally … I know some people were taking about debt and how they need four years of consecutive rain to pretty much bring themselves out of that debt.

"I think that was a massive eye-opener for some of the boys as well, it's pretty devastating."

Perspective is something Hoopert knows plenty about.

The 21-year-old admitted to suffering a scare last year when he could initially not feel his fingers following a tackle in the Reds' clash against the Chiefs.

"When I did it, I didn't really know what was going on. My whole arm just went dead, it felt like it was on fire and I couldn't feel my thumb and the two index fingers," he said.

"The thought going through my head was: 'What am I going to do now?' It was pretty scary but the doctors on the field at the time kept me pretty calm and collected. They stretchered me off and went through all the procedures.

"I got back to Brisbane and did some scans and (they found) I had a bulging disc, so I took it pretty easy for the next couple of months after that and just steadily worked on my strength in my neck and my back and shoulders.

"I came back and aggravated it again against the NSW Country side (in NRC). It was pretty frustrating. You do all that work for so long and then you do it again - but hopefully come back this time better and stronger."

Hoopert has been doing plenty of work in the gym with Reds scrum coach Cameron Lillicrap and on the advice of Thorn, has added about 5kg to his frame in the off-season and now tips the scales at about 114kg.

"The neck's really good, it's feeling probably the best it has in the last six months," he said.

"I've been working with Crapper (Lillicrap) in the gym strengthening it all up and getting physio on it every couple of days just to make sure it's in good nick to play, so it's coming along really well."

Work on his tackle technique and scrummaging over the off-season as well, has Hoopert hoping he can make the same sort of strides that saw fellow loosehead Harry Johnson-Holmes crack the Wallabies squad last year.

"I'm hoping so, hoping to get into that Wallabies squad next year or so, or whenever they think I'm ready," he said.

"But hopefully pretty soon, that's the goal for me."

Having re-signed for the next four years with the Reds, alongside several of his junior teammates, Hoopert believes something special is on the horizon.

"I got four years, through to 2023. Me, Hamish (Stewart), Blythy (Angus Blyth), Wilso (Harry Wilson), Fraser (McReight), Tate (McDermott), we've all signed four-year deals, so it'd be good to build a good base there and go from there.

"Over the last couple of years, it'd gotten better and better each year, so hopefully this year we can go one better and make the finals."

The Reds take on the Waratahs in a Super Rugby trial at Dalby on Friday, January 24, kicking off at 6:15pm local (7:15pm AEDT) and streamed LIVE at RUGBY.com.au.