The Roar
The Roar


SPIRO: Michael Hooper out-captains Kieran Read

Has Dave Dennis' return from injury affected the Waratahs' mojo? (Photo: Glenn Nichols)
3rd August, 2014
5090 Reads

The current and long-term captain of the Waratahs and the Wallabies, even when Dave Dennis and Stephen Moore come back from injury next year, I reckon is Michael Hooper.

The current captain of the Crusaders and the future All Blacks captain is Kieran Read.

The youngster Hooper out-captained Read in the Super Rugby final, and it was his smart thinking, and dumb thinking by Read, that proved to be the decisive factor in the outcome of a superb, gripping grand final.


When Colin Slade kicked the penalty to give the Crusaders a 32-30 lead with about four minutes of play left, the Crusaders had the game and the Super Rugby trophy in the bag.

They only had to catch the kick-off, which they did, and then keep the ball in hand for several phases before winning a penalty or driving play relentlessly down the field, like the 16-phase plays the Waratahs had put on before Adam Ashley-Cooper’s second try.

But what happened? The Crusaders twice kicked the ball away. The first time Willi Heinz kicked out hurriedly on the full. It looked as if he was under instructions to ‘kick the ball to the shit-house,’ in Bob Dwyer’s immortal phrase.

The Crusaders got their hands on the ball a second time when there was about two minutes at most left to play, and again they kicked.

I can only presume that Read or the coaches had issued the instruction to the playmakers to kick the ball away. Big mistake. This gave the Waratahs and not the Crusaders the chance to determine the outcome of the match with their attack.


The Waratahs refused to do the conventional thing when they got the ball deep in their own half. Most teams would have put up a bomb and tried to win back the ball. But the Waratahs kept running the ball. They put together a couple of phases and there they were in the middle of the field, about 45 metres from the Crusaders’ try line, with a hotly contested ruck.

And, oh no, there is Richie McCaw coming in, apparently, from the side. Penalty to the Waratahs and Bernard Foley kicks himself into NSW glory.

Where Michael Hooper’s excellent captaincy comes into play in all of this is that he kept the faith, from the brilliant beginning, through the tough times when the Crusaders ground their way back into the match, and into the last dramatic minutes to snatch victory when all seemed to be lost.

The only kicking the Waratahs did was tactical. In the beginning of the game Nemani Nadolo was targeted. The huge Fijian winger, who has shaky hands, found it difficult, as if he were in aircraft carrier mode, when he had to turn and gather in a rolling ball.

The Waratahs gave away the dinky little kicks from the halfback or from Kurtley Beale. They forced the Crusaders to scrabble into rucks to get possession off them. For most of the match, even when the Crusaders started to get some dominance finally in the rucks, the Waratahs forced a contest for possession when they had the ball.

And in the end, this tactic paid off, with McCaw going into a 50/50 situation and being penalised.

The point here is that when the All Blacks were in a similar position in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final and McCaw was the captain, they kept the ball in hand in the final few minutes. The coaching box had sent instructions to McCaw for a long kick down field, in the Crusaders’ manner.

McCaw decided that the All Blacks could hang on to the ball better than they could contain the French counter-attack. Which they did. Why didn’t Read make the same decision? This raises the issue whether Read is the logical choice as a future All Blacks captain.


Michael Hooper, as well as excelling as a captain, also proved that he is tough enough to be a loose forward of significance in Test rugby. This is a matter I had had some doubts about before this match.

But Hooper’s all-round display was outstanding. He actually won a lineout and would have had another lineout win but for a crooked throw. His tackling was ferocious throughout the match. He gave away a couple of penalties at the breakdown but, hey, even the great Richie McCaw does this, too.

And when the Waratahs were trying to get back into the game in the last quarter, he made a sizzling 40-metre break which put his side on the front foot once more.

There is one proviso I would make to all of this. Clive James once described Arnie Swarzburger’s chest as looking like a condom stuffed with walnuts. Hooper is beginning to get this sort of a look. Phil Waugh ended up with a walnut chest and thighs and could hardly run. Hooper needs to make sure that the gym work doesn’t make his muscles so massive that he loses his speed.

Right now he is a champion player and a cool, calm and calculating captain, and the quickest loose forward in world rugby.

The Wallabies are going into camp on Monday at Dubbo and then at various parts of country NSW. This is terrific for spreading the faith in the game, and for the Wallabies themselves. The more the rah rah image is reversed and some country mud and guts is brought back into the culture of the Wallabies the better.

Coach Ewen McKenzie has some interesting decisions to make about the formation of the starting side, especially the back line, for the first Test at ANZ Stadium against the All Blacks on August 16.

The formation of Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper is so devastating, on attack and defence, that there must be consideration for keeping it intact.


Ashley-Cooper, man of the match in the grand final, has played a terrific game again on attack and defence at centre. His play is somewhat like that of Conrad Smith, with the additional factor that he can score tries with hard, straight and determined running.

My guess is that the Foley and Matt Toomua five-eighths combination will be kept. This probably makes sense, although Beale’s counter-attacking play is often more potent than that of Israel Folau. But I would keep Ashley-Cooper at centre and move Tevita Kuridrani to the wing.

A big runner like Kuridrani is a terrific asset to any back line, as Nadolo showed when he was given a bit of room to charge through. Kuridrani is fast enough to play winger and he could be used, like Henry Speight was by the Brumbies, to smash through the middle of the field in phase play.

Phipps, too, has moved well in front of Nic White. There is great energy and fire about his play, something that the young Gregan had before he began to play like a cranky grandfather.

I am a great believer in having lots of energy in the halves. Phipps and Foley provide this and this energy flowed into the Waratahs, and will pour into the Wallabies machine if McKenzie gives them a chance to be the spark plugs of the side.

There must now be questions asked about Todd Blackadder as a coach. The Crusaders were almost blown out of the game by the early onslaught from the Waratahs. They did not seem to have a game plan to stop the Waratahs, aside from trying to slow the ball down at the rucks.

This was always going to be a dumb strategy because referee Craig Joubert referees for open, fast and positive play. There was no way Joubert was going to allow this final to be slowed down by negative play, from both teams. The Crusaders should have got the message early on when Joubert gave a rush of penalties against them.

Again we come back to the captain. One of the skills of a captain is being able to adjust to the referee. McCaw did this with Joubert in the Rugby World Cup 2011 final. Read did not do this on Saturday night. Hooper read the referee very well, and his side prospered because of this.


We end with Michael Cheika, last but in no way the least worthy of praise. Cheika has restored the traditional Waratahs game back to the team.

This is the ball-in-hand, aggressive attack and defence, slick running and passing and high octane movement that started with the AIF side that toured Australia in 1919, bringing back first class rugby to the country after a hiatus of four years while other matters were resolved. As the great Peter Crittle likes to remind us, this team of fit soldiers, who had endured and survived slaughter grounds in Turkey and Europe, had a policy of no kicking.

Just run the ball and play for the sheer enjoyment of being young, alive and having the chance to have the time of their lives.

Professional rugby is more sophisticated than this. The tactics are shrewder and more detailed. But the enjoyment factor remains in Cheika’s Waratahs, and the desire to win by having a go.

Michael Cheika has now coached the winning Sydney Premiership side, the winning Heineken Cup side and now the winning Super Rugby side for 2014. This is a formidable triple crown achievement.

The Wallabies beckon some time in the future, and who knows what future tournament successes will be added to his already impressive trophy cabinet.