Hooper’s high value

Michael Hooper may be one of the world’s smallest loose forwards but he’s worth his weight in gold for the Wallabies, writes ALEX BROUN.

Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie clearly remembers when he first set eyes on his new captain, Michael Hooper.

‘He was captaining the New South Wales U16 team at the 2008 Australian Championship. I was the Waratahs coach and I immediately thought, “There’s a guy who can play for us.”

‘I used to play against his father David [a formidable club player for Manly in Sydney] and knew how competitive he was,’ adds McKenzie. ‘Michael has a completely different physique [he’s measurably shorter than his dad] but there was something about the kid, even then.’

Effusive praise from the hard-to-please Wallabies taskmaster.

At 1.82m and 97kg, Hooper is small for a modern-day loose forward. Compare him to the Boks’ loose trio of Schalk Burger (1.93m, 114kg), Francois Louw (1.88m, 112kg) and Duane Vermuelen (1.93m, 116kg). But being closer to the ground only helps him get his body shape lower at the breakdown, which is crucial for a fetcher.

‘A lot of these guys [short flankers] carry their weight in their legs,’ says McKenzie. ‘That gives them a strong lower centre of gravity, particularly when they are competing for possession.’

It also aids his impressive mobility, according to the coach.

‘Michael is one of the quickest guys across 10m and in terms of acceleration. He’s also able to switch himself on every week, no matter whether it’s for the Waratahs or the Wallabies. He can go out there and play with great intensity and consistency. I like that. You’re not worried about him having a quiet day. You can rely on him to play at a high level every week, which is fantastic for a coach.’

France captain Thierry Dusautoir is well aware of the threat Hooper poses. Rated among the best flankers in the game, Dusautoir was completely outplayed by Hooper in the June Test series.

‘We really fear him,’ he acknowledged.

'You can rely on him to play at a high level every week, which is fantastic for a coach’ – Ewen McKenzie

Hooper’s ability to vary his role also poses a danger to the opposition defence.

‘Michael’s role changes depending on the game style,’ explains McKenzie. ‘We generally like to think the No 7 has a destructive role in defence and is a linking player in attack – the No 7 works with the playmaker.’

Hooper has another role this season having assumed the captaincy after Stephen  Moore’s season-ending injury in the first Test against France. When making the announcement, McKenzie said he was confident Hooper had all the right qualities to lead the Wallabies. He added that the coaches wouldn’t have recognised him in a leadership capacity at the beginning of the France series if they didn’t think he had the ability to step into the role. 

The 22-year-old is not daunted by the captaincy challenge.

‘I don’t think it puts me under pressure,’ he says, his usual optimism shining through. ‘It’s exciting, a great challenge, and the fact that I can do it with guys I know so well is a really cool thing.’

Another of Hooper’s attractive qualities is his durability. No matter how hard the hits he seems to bounce straight back up. One huge tackle by Chiefs prop Ben Tameifuna shook the stands, but Hooper still popped his pass a millisecond later and got right back to his feet – albeit a little gingerly.

‘It’s like in cricket,’ says Hooper. ‘The batsmen get hit all the time, but they have nowhere to hide out in the middle and have to face up to the next ball. It’s the same in rugby. You have to enjoy being on the field and stay in the game. The Wallabies do a lot of work behind the scenes on withstanding the hits. You might get knocked down but on the field you’re always getting straight back up.’

Hooper’s expecting the big hits to keep coming in the Rugby Championship. He has great respect for the Springboks, the All Blacks and Argentina, but not fear.

‘All three countries are passionate, wear-their-heart-on-their-sleeve type of nations. We know we face a huge challenge. If we aren’t properly prepared, we’re going to get smashed.

‘It will be a tough forward battle. One-on-one tackles will be crucial – driving mauls, the breakdown area, the nitty-gritty. We are concentrating on moving bodies, getting to ground, and getting good quick possession.’

Hooper is positive about the direction the Wallabies are moving in despite the tough task ahead.

‘There’s lots of motivation,’ he says. ‘We’re coming up on some milestones. It’s over a decade since we got seven wins in a row [a mark they achieved in the third Test against France] and 12 years since we’ve won the Bledisloe Cup.’

With Hooper as captain, the Wallabies may have just found their man to lead them back to glory.

– This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Simon Borchardt