Breakout year puts Hooper in driving seat
When Michael Hooper describes the childhood bedroom he still sleeps in at his parents' home in Collaroy, it is not what you would expect of the rugby star. On the walls are no posters of Wallabies legends. In fact, few signs give away his passion for the game.
''It has Tracks magazine [photos] ... surfing posters on the wall,'' the 21-year-old Wallabies revelation of 2012 told Fairfax Media this week, his first with the NSW Waratahs after a three-year spell at the ACT-based Brumbies. ''I used to surf quite a bit when I was young. Canberra sort of shot that down.''
Hooper says little, if anything, has changed in the bedroom where, as a tacker, his dreams were more of surfing barrels than scrapping for the ball. Hooper still remembers how his English-born father David and mother Raeleen would tease him about losing it when he left Sydney three years ago with his elder brother Richard, who still plays with Manly, for the Brumbies Academy. ''They would always joke that they would have foreign students in,'' Hooper says, laughing. Luckily, his defensive instincts were as strong then as now. The bedroom is still his. ''I'd come back a fair bit,'' he says. ''It was only three hours [away].''
Hooper may still live at home with his parents, but seeing him on the paddock in Super or Test rugby is like watching a seasoned star of the game. For Hooper to suddenly rise as one of the world's best in the contentious No.7 position is nothing short of remarkable.
Wallabies legend George Smith, 32, says Hooper ''always had natural footballing instincts''. Smith, now playing for the Suntory Sungoliaths in Japan, was Hooper's mentor when he arrived at the Brumbies. But even Smith, who set new standards of excellence as a No.7 in a career that included 110 Tests and 120 Super games, has been surprised by how rapidly Hooper has developed into a challenger to Wallabies captain David Pocock for the No. 7 jersey.
While generations apart and having gone to different schools - Hooper to Saint Pius College and Smith to Cromer High School - their rugby journeys have followed similar paths to similar outcomes. From their start at Manly Roos as juniors, to the ranks of club rugby with the Manly Marlins, they were soon picked and played for Australian under-age teams before graduating to the Brumbies and eventually the Wallabies.
Smith saw something in Hooper from the first day he arrived at the Brumbies. ''You could see he had that natural ability to play the game,'' Smith says. ''He has always had those natural footballing instincts. But the way that he committed himself to his training methods impressed me. He worked hard and always looked for different skills to pick up. He picks things up quite easily, and it looks natural in the way he plays the game. That is what impresses me ... he looks natural in his environment.''
Hooper, who has played 13 Tests since his debut in a shock Wallabies loss to Scotland in Newcastle last year, enjoys the game as much as he did at the Manly Roos, or at Saint Pius College, where he played under ''Mr Stern'' - or Matt Stern.
''He is Welsh and just loves pick-and-driving,'' Hooper recalls. ''School footy is always really good because you are always running out pumped up every game.''
Hooper never really thought of rugby as a profession, but that changed when he moved to Canberra, where Smith - by then one of his favourite players - was assigned as his mentor at the Brumbies. ''It was a great opportunity to learn from the best. NSW was chock-a-block with 7s and Phil Waugh wasn't going to leave soon and playing good rugby,'' Hooper says.
Hooper still had to wait for his opportunity at the Brumbies, with Smith only once missing a game due to injury. But in round seven of the 2010 Super season a shoulder injury sidelined Smith for the first time in 60 games and Hooper was brought in to play the Chiefs in Canberra. ''You get into the camp and enjoy it ... next thing you are on the bench, someone gets injured and you are running on,'' Hooper says. ''It was nice to finally run on to the field again. I managed to get a try, although I don't think I saw another one for the rest of the year. Poor Julian Salvi had waited there for years, moved away and then the year he moves George got injured. It's the way rugby works I think.''
Hooper's rise to the Wallabies for the Test against Scotland last year also came out of the blue, and with little time for him to celebrate. On the Friday, he played for the Brumbies against the Rebels, learned of his Wallabies selection the next day and was playing off the bench in a Test by Tuesday. ''I didn't expect it, so it was awesome. We ended up losing. It was the worst weather I have ever played in my life ... and it was great,'' he says. ''We were the better team on that day. [Losing] was disappointing ... but I learned how much weight and a responsibility a Test match has.''
Good thing he did. After Australia avenged the loss to Scotland with a 3-0 Test series win over Wales, Pocock underwent surgery to his right knee during the Rugby Championship, allowing Hooper to take over the No.7 jersey, beginning with a clash against the All Blacks at Eden Park.
Hooper made the best of the opportunity. During the series he won three of four player awards and has never looked back. On the spring tour of Europe, Hooper started in the first three Tests against France, England and Italy, and only went back to the bench for Pocock for the final Test against Wales.
Smith took notice. ''He wasn't just a player in the team, he was a standout for many of the games for Australia. It's now whether he can be consistent. The No.7 has the ability to turn the team's momentum in their favour. You see that with Pocock with the way he attacks the breakdown and dominates the breakdown, and that's a crucial part of the game. Then the ball carries he had ... the way he busts through defences. When you see - from a viewer's perspective - that there isn't an avenue to go through, he seems to pop out the other end through the defensive line. His turn of pace is fantastic. One game, he took the ball off the back of the lineout, took off and he looked like he was a winger.''
Hooper sensed he was riding a wave of rich form on the European tour and was disappointed he lost his spot to a fully recovered Pocock for the Welsh Test, even though he recognises Pocock's ability as a No.7 and his valuable stature as a captain. ''I was disappointed I wasn't starting. You get a taste and want more. But he was unlucky with his injury and he had to get time in somewhere.''
Hooper also knows he and Pocock will be dogged by questions over their rivalry for the cherished Wallabies No.7 jersey for the rest of their careers as Smith experienced with his battle with Phil Waugh, and in the latter days of his Wallaby career with Pocock.
Hooper laughs, then says: ''It's going to happen, isn't it? But it's a good position to be in, with me and 'Poey' and 'Gilly' [Liam Gill] up in Queensland. It makes us all better too. We have been away together for a couple of months and have seen what each other does and how they play.
''You learn things off each other, then you go away and play them. It makes you want to do more to try and beat them. I don't think you can ever think that spot is yours. You have to think what they [the rivals for selection] are doing and if they are doing things extra you have to think about how I can match that.''
Smith believes the scrutiny on the pair - and their contest for the Wallabies' spot - will bring the best out of both players, which can only help the Wallabies. ''I don't see that as a negative,'' Smith says. ''With myself ... 'Waughy' was a fantastic player and a player I admired. It didn't bother me that we were compared all the time and that our careers were aligned. He made me a better player and I am sure he became a better player from it as well.''
What advice would he give Hooper for handling the attention that will fall on his contest with Pocock? ''Take it as a positive. Feed off it and bounce off each other's strengths and skills. Use it to enhance yourself as a player. If it leads to learning three or four skills off David Pocock, that's a bonus. ''
In the meantime, Hooper is focused on helping the Waratahs - where he announced he was going last April - shed their label as underperformers. Hooper won't say it point blank, but hints that opposition sides would see the Tahs as a side vulnerable to pressure near the back end of games.
''They were always thereabouts, always scratching at finals or they get in the finals - last year was an exception,'' Hooper says of NSW's 11th place.
''They came out like a house on fire last year - six out of the starting eight were Wallabies. Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes in the back line ... Names all over the park. But you think, 'weather the storm, get them frustrated' ... we got two wins [over NSW] last year, close wins but a win is a win.''
But with coach Michael Cheika taking the reins, Hooper says: ''People who may still be thinking we are unfit towards the back end of the game might be surprised.''
Sydney Morning Herald