It’s not often you see the best player in Australia leave for foreign shores, only to nod your head and think – without a shred of sarcasm – “Yeah, that seems like a fairly good development”.
Things would be different if Michael Hooper’s overseas departure was permanent, but it is, of course, merely a six-month breather entirely sanctioned and supported by Rugby Australia before he returns for the second half of 2021.
If there’s a player in Australian rugby who deserves the opportunity to take a short release from his current contract to bolster his hip pocket, it’s Hooper.
Even if you take out the $15,000 a week he lost out on due to the COVID-enforced pay cuts, the former and possibly future Wallabies captain has been remarkably durable whether he’s been wearing sky blue or gold, notching 150 Super Rugby appearances (easily the youngest Australian to do so) and 99 Test caps in just over a decade.
And despite what his legion of blinkered critics would have you believe, Hooper has consistently been in the top handful of performers for the Tahs and national side. There’s every chance the stint with Toyota Verblitz will improve him even further, too.
In Kieran Read and Steve Hansen, Hooper has two of modern rugby’s best leaders and thinkers learn from. Playing in the same line-up as Read, one of the premier back-rowers to take to the field in the past decade, isn’t exactly going to hurt, either. (As an aside, it says something about the Australian’s quality that the two All Blacks greats reportedly sounded him out about the move several times before it was finally confirmed.)
So for the player, it’s a no-brainer: an outstanding brainstrust to help further his development, and a nice little earner too. That the Japanese Top League, already a less physically demanding competition than Super Rugby, will have a later start than usual in 2021 (mid-January rather than the previous August) means Hooper won’t come back to Australia worn out.
For Rugby Australia, it’s a means of keeping one of the Wallabies’ most important players content despite the pay cuts which have been necessary this year, and the timing means he won’t miss any Tests, although admittedly banking on fixturing certainties these days is a fraught exercise.
It’ll give other opensides a chance to shine in Super Rugby in his absence – looking your way, Fraser McReight – and will take the heftiest contract in Australian off Rugby AU’s books for half a year. Again, there’s no downside there.
For the Waratahs, the financial aspect is key. It’s already emerged the team are looking to cut their player wage bill by $1 million for next year. By offloading their highest-paid player for the season, they’ll make roughly half of those savings in a single move.
Unlike the Wallabies, though, the Tahs will have to deal with the painfully obvious drawback to this savvy bit of accounting: Michael Hooper won’t play for them next season.
More accurately, he probably won’t play for them. Without yet knowing what the 2021 rugby calendar looks like, it’s impossible to say with 100 per cent certainty exactly how much of Super Rugby Hooper will be available for. However it’s safe enough to assume a July return won’t get him much more than finals – which NSW are unlikely to qualify for without their former captain, particularly with current skipper Rob Simmons leaving at the end of the year.
They haven’t needed great depth at openside in recent years because of Hooper, and with last year’s back-up, Will Miller, heading down the highway to Canberra at the end of 2019, young Carlo Tizzano looks set to have the no.7 on his back for much of next season.
It’s a great opportunity for the 20-year-old to develop his game, all the while making next season another rebuilding one for the Waratahs. It also puts them in the unlikely position of being a better chance to qualify for the finals in 2020 than 2021.
Even with Hooper on the field tomorrow night, it would be a remarkable effort for Rob Penney’s side to seal a post-season spot.
A bonus-point win while denying the Rebels a bonus point of their own is the only result which would guarantee the top-three finish required for a semi-final berth. Against an opponent which has outclassed them twice already this year and has the added advantage of coming off the bye, and without midfield lynchpin Karmichael Hunt, it’s hard to see it happening.
That said, there’d be something fitting about Hooper, in what could well be his last game in sky blue until 2022, dragging his time to an unlikely, famous victory.