Michael Hooper: Leading the next generation of Wallabies into a new era

Michael Hooper is embracing his return to the Wallabies. Photo: Getty Images

The life of a professional rugby player at Sanctuary Cove does not disagree with Michael Hooper.

There are no buses, for one, hauling you off to training. You hop on your bike, roll to the gym, roll to the training track, have a feed and head back to your cot. That’s your day.

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And it’s extremely physical in between.

“I’m pretty buckled at the moment,” Hooper says on the phone from the Gold Coast. “We’ve had a pretty tough 10 old days. It’s pretty primitive living when you’re trying to get in good shape. It’s been good.”

Another enjoyable thing for the 29-year-old Wallabies captain, now in his 10th season of pro rugby, has been witnessing the enthusiasm the 11 uncapped members of the 38-man squad have for the jumper and the greater “camp” experience.

Seeing them open kit bags, pull on training tops, even ogling the schedule, Hooper says he’s feeding off the energy.

In 2012 Hooper was those kids when he debuted in a 9-6 loss to Scotland (that very windy and wet night in Newcastle).

He was still a kid when Stephen Moore was injured in the first Test of the series against France in 2014 and, aged 22, he captained Australia in a 6-0 win under the roof at Docklands Stadium. (Weird enough series – Australia won the first Test 50-23 in Brisbane, the third Test 39-13 in Sydney.)

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And today, after a “sabbatical” in Japan playing rugby for Toyota Verblitz, he’s back and fresh and ready to go. But he would not recommend 14 days in quarantine.

“I had great plans of going in and knocking off all this ‘life admin’ stuff,” Hooper says. “but it was hard. The novelty wears off after 24 hours and you think, hang on, I’ve got 13 more days of this?”

Yet Hooper loved Japan. He’s always loved it. His family spent ski holidays there. There were mini-tours for the Wallabies and Waratahs when they played the Sunwolves. He loves the sushi, the ramen. He even enjoys the bowing in a society he describes as the “most courteous on earth”.

And the rugby was something else again. He played with Kieran Read and Willie le Roux, and got to know them for the first time. He learned from Steve Hansen and Simon Cron. He benefited mentally from doing something different after living in Australian rugby for 11 months of every year for a decade.

And he learned that rugby is rugby wherever you go - to an extent.

“There’s probably a misconception that [rugby in Japan] is easier or something,” Hooper says.

“The game is faster, there’s more ball in play time, a lot of running. What I found is that rugby is as hard as you want to make it. If someone weighs 120kg you’ve still got to tackle them. That’s still hard.”

Yet in other ways he found the rugby experience “completely different”. There were interpreters around all the time. There were lineout and other calls that needed translation in a game Hooper says is already complex enough.

But he jokes that rugby has a universal language: “If you call out enough you’ll get the ball!”

Overall Hooper says it was greatly beneficial. “It was like a new day at school, meeting new players, learning new things, trying to work out how you’ll go over there. It was a test and a good perspective about where I’m at with myself, my game and my leadership.”

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie made statements about Hooper’s leadership that would have rung in the captain’s ears, telling Fox Sports that while Hooper is “a fantastic role model and the players look up to him ... his ability to connect with those boys he’s working really hard on”.

“It’s a challenge for a captain,” Rennie said. “You’re one of the boys as well as understanding at times you’ve got to poke people in the chest and challenge.”

Has Hooper poked anyone in the chest this year?

“Nothing springs to mind,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. There’s a level of urgency but people have to learn and pick up things at their own pace. It’s a challenge. There’s a balance.

“That’s why there’s Dave, myself and plenty of other leaders within the group. And the young players have a role too. It’s not just up to one player poking people in the chest. I don’t think that will get you a good outcome. It’s not a sustainable thing for the team. It’s up to everyone.”

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One constant out of Camp Wallaby has been for the Wallabies to find their “dark side”, the “hard edge” to compete with and beat the big dogs of world rugby. And to be respected for it. Hooper says it’s no secret that the Wallabies are working on contact. It’s effectively all Dan McKellar does.

“There’s been a fair contingent of contact in this block,” Hooper says.

“We know that through Super Rugby and world rugby the stats do the talking. Defence is such an important part of the game. It’s a real 1-15 thing. The less tries you allow in the less you have to score and it’s a way to wear down the opposition’s morale.

“We’ve made no bones about the importance of it, we’re not trying to keep it hush-hush. Every team knows it’s important, and we’ve got to make it come to life. And we’ve achieved that at training. Long way to go. It’s how we implement it in games that’s our next challenge.

“How other teams feel about playing against us is going to be a good marker.”

First up: France, whom Hooper believes will be an excellent challenge for his fresh young squad.

“A lot of the commentary I’ve been hearing is that they’re an outstanding team, one of the most exciting teams in the European competition with plenty of great players across the board.

“It’s going to be a bit disjointed for them, they’re wrapping up their season. It’s not too dissimilar for us but they have to fly around the world which once upon a time was a little bit easier. There’s a few cogs that are spinning for them.

“But they’re outstanding from all reports and we’ll put in a lot of work to get a good understanding on them,” Hooper says.

So here he is, Australian sports fans, your Wallabies captain. And after several maligned years for the game in Australia, with a “new dawn” of free-to-air television and talented youth apparently upon us, the man wants you to know this: the Wallabies want to make you proud.

“This group is extremely motivated to make their mark in the jersey,” Hooper says. “And to allow other young rugby players and fans to connect to what we’re trying to do out on the field.

“Once we’re gone – as every player who has their time in the jersey will be – what is each one of us going to be able to say we did in the jersey? What type of mark have we left? That’s going to be shown about how we play and how we conduct ourselves. It’s exciting. It’s what our guys want to be part of.”

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