Hooper’s under fire

Michael Hooper’s selection at openside flank for the Wallabies continues to cause debate, writes MARK CASHMAN.

Sydney’s northern beaches are a great place to be in late winter and early spring. The winter sun and the light north-westerly combine with a consistent swell. You can chill out, collect your thoughts, get some salt water on the face and sort out your schedule for the next few months.

So when Wallabies openside flank Michael Hooper lugged his bags through the front door of his A$2-million-plus digs at Fairlight, not far from Manly, at the end of August, he must have breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Hooper has barely had a night in at his four-bedroom place since taking the great Sydney real-estate plunge at the start of the Super Rugby season.

But after falling short of the playoffs in Super Rugby with the Waratahs, a 3-0 series loss to England with the Wallabies in June and a couple of man-handlings by the All Blacks, some quiet time was essential. Home to recharge the batteries and reboot the hard drive.

Contrast this to the accolades he received during the 2015 World Cup when he and David Pocock, playing at openside flank and No 8 respectively, broke England hearts and ended the international coaching career of Stuart Lancaster at Twickenham one wet Saturday afternoon. At the time, the Daily Mail said ‘Pooper’ (as the duo had become known) was like a provincial law firm with a ruthless streak.

And they were. But in the high octane world of professional rugby, things move quickly and a little under 12 months on, questions are being asked of the wisdom of picking both in the same starting side.

While Pocock has been tending his organic vegetable patch in chilly Canberra, the 24-year-old Hooper has been getting the good old Aussie ‘tall poppy’ treatment in 2016.

Most of the commentary has been around the Hooper vs Pocock battle for the Wallabies No 7 jersey and there’s no doubt the rugby public in Australia is divided.

Many say Hooper is the more complete player, better able to run the ball in the wider channels and get the turnovers that can change games. However, Pocock supporters say he is stronger over the ball, better suited to the more physical nature of Test rugby, but without the attacking skills Hooper brings to the table, honed from his schoolboy days as a centre.

But as all good rugby judges know, synergy in any back row is vital and an intangible thing. Bedding down new combinations at the Waratahs and Wallabies takes time.

World Cup-winning Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer was the first to throw a hand-grenade when he was quoted as saying Hooper was a ‘non-event’ and nowhere near Wallabies selection.

‘I reckon he is the fifth-choice openside flank in Australia. He’s gone from being an absolutely outstanding player to what I think is a total non-event,’ Dwyer said in April.

‘I do not know what’s happened to him. It’s got me stumped. How can he go from being one of the world’s most significant players to what he is now?

‘I’ve been a really big fan [of his] and a couple of years ago when there was talk about whether to pick Hooper or Pocock, I backed him. But I don’t know what’s happened to his form this year because I don’t see anything from him. I hardly see him contesting any ball on the ground any more.’

Mick Byrne, now with the Wallabies but a former All Blacks skills coach for much of their golden run over the past 13 years, was quick to defend Hooper.

‘He’s a great player, full stop. You wouldn’t see a former All Blacks coach saying that. It’s easy to go after those big-name players sometimes, they’re the easy targets and in many ways it’s pretty unfair [on Hooper]. You’ve only got to watch what he does on the field. He’s not going to die wondering, is he?’

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was also in Hooper’s corner in the wake of the Dwyer serve.

‘It’s a little bit disappointing for me … more the language that’s being used as opposed to the idea, because a guy like Hooper definitely doesn’t merit that type of attention,’ Cheika said.

‘I don’t need to go on the record about what I think of Michael Hooper; I think it’s been seen through my selections. He’s got an unbelievable track record but he’s playing in a different team and the combinations are different. The complementary nature of back rows, front rows and the halves, it all comes into play in this sort of stuff.

‘His effort, all the things you don’t need talent for – work rate, getting off the ground, chasing things down – he’s burning in all those things.’

However, as England coach Eddie Jones says, tight Tests are won in the contests like the set piece and breakdown.

‘Hooper is a fantastic player who is fast, has a great sense for attack and is equally proficient as a jackal [ball-stealer], but he lacks the physical presence of Pocock. As he does not provide a lineout jumping option, it is impossible to play him in the same back row at No 6.

‘At the 2003 World Cup, I went with two opensiders, George Smith and Phil Waugh, in the back row by default. I remember being widely criticised by the great forwards coach Alex Evans for not picking a jumping No 6 and he was right. If England’s Jonny Wilkinson had missed the drop goal in the final, it would have been a brilliant selection. He slotted it and I was a dummy. That’s the life of a coach.’

Effective back rows always work best when one to five are not just doing their job, but dominating. That certainly didn’t happen in any of the Wallabies’ first five Tests in 2016, but you get the feeling Cheika will stare down the detractors and stick with the ‘double seven’ philosophy. After all, it’s part of this Wallabies group’s identity.

And what do the two combatants think? Well, if they do have an opinion we’re not going to hear about it until the books are written!

Let’s hope that some late winter sunshine and salt water do the trick and get one of world rugby’s great combinations back on track.

Michael Hooper is on Facebook and Instagram, but is not a fan of Twitter.

‘I prefer not to have a Twitter account,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to put my life out there in 140 characters or less – and I don’t think what I have to say is that interesting.

‘I don’t post often, if at all, any more. I don’t want to put my pictures out there too much. But I do look at what’s going on [on social media]. I like Instagram because you can see what people are up to – again, a guilty pleasure.

‘I haven’t had any big followers. And I haven’t had anything trend, which is probably a good thing.’

– This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli