Dispelling the myths about Michael Hooper and leadership

Nicholas Bishop Columnist

By , Nicholas Bishop is a Roar Expert

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    Who really knows what makes a good leader? How easy are they to identify?

    Take the case of Arthur Beetson in rugby league. At the time he was first appointed as Eastern Suburbs captain in 1974, no-one considered ‘meat-pie Artie’ a leader in anything other than the consumption of hamburgers. He was lazy and he was overweight and he was not a role model for any young player at his club.

    However, the new coach at the club that year, Jack Gibson, had just finished reading a book entitled Problem Athletes and how to Handle Them, written by a couple of sports psychologists based in San Jose, California – Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko.

    The book was popular among NFL coaches at the time (Gibson read it on the advice of San Francisco 49ers coach Dick Nolan) and contained a 190-point multiple-choice questionnaire designed to assess the psychological suitability of candidates for leadership roles within a sporting team.

    The test was a real mouthful – it was called the ‘Athletic Motivational Inventory’ but that quickly got reduced to ‘the Instrument’ by the coaches who used it. It was also a real mindful, measuring no less than eleven basic personality traits:

    • Drive
    • Self-confidence
    • Aggressiveness
    • Coachability
    • Determination
    • Emotional control
    • Conscientiousness
    • Trust
    • Responsibility
    • Leadership
    • Mental toughness

    In other words, it was similar to the research Spiro mentioned by Sam Walker in his recent column. The difference is that Ogilvie and Tutko’s work was far more practical and comprehensive, and it was utilised by active coaches working in the real world of sport.

    The questionnaire broke down personality structures and identified those most likely to succeed or lead, and Artie Beetson scored 100 per cent on it – a feat that had never been achieved previously anywhere in the world (even in America).

    So it was that a player never before considered as captaincy material became one of the great captains.

    In the world of modern professional rugby, the process has been taken on a few more notches, and coaches look for a core group of five or six leaders within the team. Between them, those players take care of particular areas within the side (such as scrum, lineout or defence) and take ownership of the playing direction on the field.

    I have no idea whether Michael Cheika uses ‘the Instrument’ or anything like it to make his selections, but when he announced Michael Hooper as Wallabies captain last week, it would have been in the full knowledge that leadership responsibility would be shared, and that captains are where you find them.

    Cheika has name-checked six individuals in his leadership group. This is how they line up against their All Black counterparts ahead of the first Bledisloe game on 19 August.

    Wallaby Leader All Black Leader Area Caps
    Michael Hooper Kieran Read Captain 68/100
    Allan Alaalatoa Owen Franks Scrum 12/94
    Adam Coleman Sam Whitelock Lineout 12/88
    Will Genia Aaron Smith Tactical direction 78/62
    Bernard Foley Beauden Barrett Tactical direction 45/53
    Samu Kerevi Ryan Crotty Defence 8/27

    The main difference is experience. The All Blacks average 71 caps to 37 caps in the Wallaby leadership group, and the discrepancy is most marked in the areas of set-piece and defence.

    The lack of experience in these areas could be a real concern – for example, if Allan Alaalatoa was indeed the scrum leader in the June game against Italy, then he (possibly along with Tatafu Polota-Nau) wasn’t able to fix the issues that arose in the course of a match where Australia conceded seven penalties and one yellow card in that one area – even if the problems didn’t occur on his side of the scrum.

    The Wallaby leadership group is young and untried and we will have to wait and see whether Cheika has discovered his own Artie Beetsons over the course of the next two seasons, leading up to the World Cup in Japan 2019.

    While Michael Hooper has it all to prove at the tip of that Australian leadership group – and as an interface with the referee – he has very little to prove as an openside flanker in the international arena.

    I took a look back at the Wallabies’ most challenging game in the June series, against Scotland, to check whether the most common myths about his playing style have any basis in fact.

    The most prominent among those criticisms is that Hooper tends to play wide, away from the centre of the action and lacks physicality in contact.

    Here are the results of that research in attack:

    Zone Midfield – between the 15s Midfield clean breaks Wide – outside 15m lines Wide clean breaks
    Hooper on attack 47 3 30 0

    And on defence:

    Zone Midfield – between the 15s Midfield turnovers/disruptions Wide – outside 15m lines Wide turnovers/disruptions
    Hooper on defence 63 2/1 10 0/2

    Sixty-one per cent of Hooper’s activity on attack, and 86 per cent of his involvements on defence, occur in the middle of the field. Moreover, all five of his significant involvements (three clean breaks and two turnovers in contact) went through the middle of the field. They did not occur out wide.

    If we break down Hooper’s involvement in the Australian attack, it becomes clear that his role varies, depending on where the Wallabies are on the field. In midfield – what is often called the ‘blue zone’ roughly between the two 40-metre lines – they open out their offence into the ‘1-3-3-1’ structure.

    This means that there are two pods of tight forwards plus one of the back-rowers operating in between the two 15-metre lines, with the other two back-row players split wide, one to either side of the field:

    In the first frame, Hooper is out on the right, in the second he is on the left with Scott Higginbotham shifting out towards the sideline. The tight forwards along with Ned Hanigan are grouped together in midfield to do the heavy ball-carrying, with Hooper and Higginbotham adding support to the ball when the movement goes wide.

    The same is not true of Hooper’s positioning when play is in the Wallaby ‘green zone’ in their own end, or the ‘red zone’ in their opponents’.

    In the area around the Australian 22, Michael Hooper moves into midfield to play with the forwards or become a one-off ball-carrier:

    In the first frame, Hooper has moved into a pod with Sam Carter and Tatafu Polota-Nau to become a ‘hard yards’ ball-carrier, in the second he is used as the decoy for a second man play between Bernard Foley and Karmichael Hunt. The third shot shows him breaking out from the back of a driving maul against loose Scottish fringe defence.

    Hooper also moves inside to play off either nine or ten when the Wallabies get close to the opposition 22-metre zone:

    Whether he is playing in the middle of a pod with two other forwards, off Will Genia or Bernard Foley, or on the pick and go from the base of the previous ruck, Michael Hooper is definitely not playing on the edge of the field – he is literally right in the thick of the action!

    On the defensive side of the ball, you often expect to find the most reliable tacklers at number seven and number 12.

    In several previous articles, Nathan Grey’s positioning of Michael Hooper in the ten channel from lineout has been highlighted. In general, Grey likes to have Hooper opposite the first receiver in order to have him shoot up and crush the passer:

    One of Hooper’s greatest assets is his ability to reload quickly and make multiple tackles within a short series of phases while tackling forwards and backs with equal facility.

    The second and third frames show him tackling two front-row forwards and flattening two backs on the ‘shoot’ in the other two. All four tackles occur within a total of five phases and the last ended with a turnover squeezed out of the pressure via a forward pass.

    In longer sequences, Grey will also have Hooper shoot up on the second receiver:

    Here, the pressure in the tackle forces a mistake out of Scotland second-rower Ben Toolis, who throws an uncontrolled pass back at Taylor, resulting in a knock forward and a scrum to Australia.

    It’s hard to know where misconceptions, and the bigger myths built around them, really start. Often it can be something as simple as a player looking too small, or having the wrong kind of hairstyle, or originating from the wrong part of the country.

    Michael Hooper plays where, and how, the Wallabies’ systems on offence and defence require him to play, and his contributions to the cause have to be seen within that perspective.

    Most of the time, those systems require him to be in the middle part of the field, and he is very effective both as a ball-carrier and a defender in that position.

    Given his impact in the tackle, it is easy to see where the ideas of having him defend at ten from lineouts, and selecting David Pocock to jackal over the top of him from the same back-row, were born.

    Were Amanaki Mafi available from the Rebels at number eight, a back-row of Hooper, Mafi and Scott Fardy would be ideal for the Rugby Championship. But a choice of Lopeti Timani and Sean McMahon in the place of Mafi and Fardy is not too shabby at all.

    Leadership is another kettle of fish. There are Artie Beetsons out there waiting to be discovered, and they do not always have the habits we expect to see in a leader.

    The forthcoming Rugby Championship will tell us a lot about whether Michael Cheika mas made the right choices in such a youthful leadership group – and whether they will sustain the national side all the way to 2019.

    Nicholas Bishop
    Nicholas Bishop

    Nick Bishop has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and most recently Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for or won national sports book awards. Nick’s latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union, entitled “The Iron Curtain”.

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