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Opinion

Why the numbers lie in the curious case of Michael Hooper

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Roar Rookie
5th July, 2021
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Numbers tell a story but not always the full story or the most important, and they don’t always get to the heart of the matter.

Sometimes they lie.

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Michael Hooper doubters – that opinionated breed who question the incumbent Australian skipper’s captaincy credentials and continued presence in the No.7 jersey – often point to numbers to highlight his perceived inadequacies.

Their go-to statistic is his underwhelming 38.5 per cent win rate as Wallabies leader. There’s also the number of classy players (four and counting) he’s criminally kept out of the openside flanker spot over the years – Sean McMahon, Liam Gill, Matt Hodgson, even the legendary David Pocock.

Critics point to Hooper’s height (182cm) and weight (101kg) as being totally inadequate for a modern openside flanker.

Even the number on his jersey attracts comment. Surely it should be higher – 12, perhaps, or better still 20. That would allow young Fraser McReight to start at No.7. He, at least, has had the good sense to grow to 184cm.

But back to Hooper and his record nine yellow cards in gold. True, some of them were for team offences, but that’s neither here nor there.

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Michael Hooper poses during the Australian Wallabies player portrait

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

And his 20 Test five-pointers, which make him the Wallabies’ most prolific try-scoring forward? Well, of course, he only scored them because he was seagulling out on the wing, where no other Aussie backrower would be seen dead.

Except Pete Samu sometimes, but he tucks his jersey in and pulls up his socks so we’ll let that go.

And Harry Wilson, maybe. But he’s young; he’ll learn.

Hooper, of course, was at the helm that infamous day in 2020 when the Wallabies received their worst-ever shellacking, 43 points to 5, at the hands of the All Blacks.

That he was also the captain a year earlier when the Wallabies recorded their biggest points win against New Zealand, 47 points to 26, was purely coincidental.

Twenty-two proved a particularly bad number for him, his age when he assumed the captaincy of his country in 2014.

Yes, it was the era of the captain’s curse – when anyone vaguely qualified for the job was injured, retired or enjoying the sunny south of France – so maybe there wasn’t any choice.

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But Hooper should have known that a teammate, along with his coach and CEO, would lose the plot.

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Hooper became first-choice Test captain in 2017, was reappointed in 2020 and he’s still there. He’s been captain for almost exactly half of his Tests, 52 of 105.

As Alan Jones might point out, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Because people never learn or grow over the course of their career.

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The media may harp on about Hooper being the fastest player to 50 Test caps in 2015 and the youngest when he received his 100th Test cap from coach Dave Rennie in 2020.

But that’s what happens when you’re selfish and keep turning in great performances so you don’t have to share your Wallabies spot with anyone else.

Amazingly, he’s convinced four successive Australia head coaches of his questionable value.

He barely paused for his one serious injury in nine seasons of Test rugby. Even two Israel Folau hand grenades lobbed onto the team bus couldn’t kill him off.

Perhaps if he’d turned a weapon on himself by telling fans they were a bunch of ignorant nobodies, things might have been different. But he didn’t, leaving Sam Cane to show how real leaders do it.

To be fair, Hooper did give up about three-quarters of his salary for three months to keep professional rugby afloat when the pandemic hit.

Michael Cheika

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

And, yes, there’s the tackle stats (sky-high), turnovers (not too shabby) and the way he goes for tries over penalty goals that makes many of us Aussies secretly proud, even when we’re cranky because we just know some butter-fingers is about to mess up.

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He’s given dozens, if not hundreds, of media interviews where he insists on maintaining the faith even though just about everyone else has given up. And he’s surely zipped the lip a thousand times because full-blown, meltdown tanties are not what Wallaby captains do.

Yet, he remains for some the worst Wallabies captain ever. Except, of course, for that captain whose winning record is so bad we dare not speak the name John Thornett. With a paltry win rate of just 37.5 per cent, what a loser he was, right?

Wrong.

Thornett led the Wallabies through a challenging period. There were highs, including a series win against the Springboks, but also lows.

He wasn’t the flashiest player but he had a steady hand and unflinching courage. Today, he’s unquestionably accepted as a Wallaby great.

Michael Hooper’s teammates see the greatness in him. Wallabies stalwart Matt To’omua cites his care and his mental strength.

There’s the three John Eales Medals if you’re looking for proof of the esteem in which he’s held by his Test peers, and of course, seven Matthew Burke Cups at provincial level, having helped steer the Waratahs to their sole Super Rugby championship in 2014.

By year’s end he may have surpassed George Gregan’s Australian record of 59 Tests as captain.

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Yet the longer his career, the more of a riddle Michael Hooper seems to become.

Is he the golden child who failed to live up to his promise and won’t let Australian rugby move on without him? Or is he simply one tough bastard, staying the course until his job is done?

Only time will tell.

Most likely, it will be long after his retirement before the Australian rugby community is able to see the true picture and his rightful place in it.

For now, though, the critical number in the Michael Hooper enigma code is two.

The two Tests the Wallabies need to win against the French to secure the series – and hopefully get the doubters off his back for a little while at least.

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