Destined to occupy one of the most physically demanding positions on Eden Park this weekend, Michael Hooper has not yet been psychologically scarred by the experience of attempting to nullify All Blacks captain Richie McCaw at the breakdown.
Hooper recognises the challenge confronting him as David Pocock's likely replacement for Saturday's second Bledisloe Cup test in Auckland, yet there is still an element of youthful exuberance about the 20-year-old's approach to the fourth - and biggest - test of his international career.
While Pocock has regularly experienced despair during his match-ups with McCaw - most recently in last Saturday's 27-19 loss in the Rugby Championship opener in Sydney - Hooper has no playing history with the exceptional All Blacks loose forward.
So excitement, not fear, was the Brumby-turned-Waratah's underlying emotion since learning the Wallabies' captain was sidelined on Monday with a knee injury.
“I haven't had the chance to play Richie yet, that's an exciting challenge,” he said, explaining he was 23rd man when the Crusaders played the Brumbies last year, while the franchises avoided each other on this season's competition.
Hooper would have appreciated some game time against McCaw to get a feel for how he plays, not that there's any shortage of video tape to study or advice to absorb.
Pocock, who learned yesterday the knee injury he suffered last weekend will sideline him for at least three months, has already offered to educate Hooper and his uncapped back-up Liam Gill on the threats McCaw poses at the collision, though once the duo were named in Robbie Deans' Rugby Championship squad they started doing their own homework.
“I've watched him more recently than over the past years and really taken notice,” said Hooper, who was a mere 10-year-old when McCaw made his test debut at Lansdowne Rd in November 2001.
“He's an outstanding player and someone . . . every openside will want to take things from.”
Yet while growing up, Hooper idolised one of McCaw's great rivals, Wallabies and Brumbies counterpart George Smith.
“I had the luxury of sort of being with him down in Canberra during his last year of Australian rugby and learnt heaps off him there,” said Hooper, who made his Super Rugby debut against the Chiefs in 2010. “He probably was my favourite openside growing up.”
Smith was equally impressed with the rookie and accurately predicted Hooper was a Wallaby-in-waiting before he headed overseas to end his illustrious career.
A compelling Super Rugby campaign with the unfashionable Brumbies saw Hooper elevated to the national side for the first time during the June internationals.
His first clash with McCaw is also his first game at Eden Park so unlike many of his contemporaries he hasn't experienced the so-called “hoodoo” that has impacted on visiting Wallabies teams since 1986.
“New park, no pre-conceived ideas,” Hooper observed.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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