Michael Hooper has stepped down as captain of the NSW Waratahs barely a week before the side’s opening Super Rugby match of the season.
Veteran second-rower Rob Simmons will take over from Hooper, with Kurtley Beale named as his deputy.
Hooper has held the position since 2016, when he took over from Dave Dennis, but was also the stand-in captain when the side won their maiden Super Rugby title in 2014.
“It’s been an honour to represent New South Wales as a player alone, but the opportunity to lead a fantastic group of men over the journey to date has been a humbling experience,” Hooper said in a statement.
“It’s a role that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but I feel that the time is right for someone like Rob to lead this group in the season ahead.
“Someone of his quality and character both on and off the field, leading this young team around will be extremely valuable moving forward – he has the full support of myself and the wider leadership team in building a culture we feel will bring NSW success in Super Rugby.”
Speaking to the media following the announcement this morning, Hooper said it was a decision which has been in the works for some time.
“It’s been a long one. It’s been something which has been on my mind in this environment for a good 18 months. So it hasn’t been something which has been on a whim or anything like that.
“I went into last season fully committed to the role but also before that I’d had question marks over my position as captain. And with the change of coach, with Rob [Penney] coming in, Rob’s been amazing in giving me the time to really mull it over. We’d spoken about my role – where I saw that, how to get the best out of myself over the next four years.
His decision to quit as Waratahs captain raises questions over whether he will continue in the same Wallabies role. Hooper has captained Australia 48 times – nearly half of the 99 Tests he’s played in the green and gold – and stepping down as national captain would allow for a complete changing of the guard under new coach Dave Rennie.
However, there’s no guarantee of change with the Wallabies. It’s not at all unusual for national skippers to not hold the same role with their state or provincial side – Kieran Read, for example, played under Sam Whitelock’s captaincy at the Crusaders in recent years – and Hooper said that, while he needs to talk to Rennie about it, he still wants to remain Wallabies captain.
For Simmons, the elevation to the Waratahs captaincy is the latest benefit for an unlikely change in his rugby career. After 114 Super Rugby appearances for the Reds, Simmons made the switch to Queensland’s great interstate rivals after being released in 2017 and has since been one of New South Wales’ most consistent forward performers.
With a two-year contract extension inked last year, the 100-cap lock will become the 172nd captain of the Waratahs.
“The significance of being selected by my teammates as their leader in 2020 is certainly not lost on me and it’s been an extremely humbling experience as we approach the new season,” he said.
“I’ve always prided myself on having a team-first mentality and that won’t change.
“Michael has built a wonderful platform [as a leader] and the support and experience he’ll provide along with the leadership group will be important in ensuring we meet the vision our squad has set for the season ahead.
“The ‘c’ may be next to my name but we’ve got a strong collection of senior players that are all responsible for driving standards within the group and educating the next generation of [NSW] Waratah on what it means to represent our state at the highest level.”