The Wallabies skipper will break George Gregan’s record for most Tests as captain against the Springboks.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper seems as excited as everyone else to see what impact returning playmaker Quade Cooper can have on the team in Sunday’s Rugby Championship clash with South Africa.
Hooper reflected on Cooper’s return as well as his own major milestone match, as he prepares to equal George Gregan’s record 59 Tests as Wallabies captain, and his leadership journey, admitting the flaw he had when he was first given the job.
There are the highlights from his press conference on Saturday.
“It’s very exciting, isn’t it?” Hooper said. “He’s got such a unique story and he’s such a quality player when he’s on.
“He’s been a really positive influence on the group since the first day came in here, really assisting some of the younger playmakers all throughout, and working on his own craft.”
Cooper spoke at length Friday about how he had changed as a person over the four years he has spent out of the Wallabies set up.
“He’s got a real hunger to keep learning and keep growing himself as a player,” Hooper said. “Everyone’s pumped to see him out there tomorrow.”
Cooper was brought in by coach Dave Rennie as a mentor for the squad’s youngsters, and Hooper said it seemed to have an impact on the veteran’s own form.
“It’s actually harder to teach than it is to just do it yourself,” said Hooper. “Someone like Quade, because he’s so bloody skilful and can do things that others probably can’t, actually trying to explain it is probably a real trick.
“So when speaking to the others about it he probably gets to understand himself a more. He’s been super positive for the guys around him.”
Cooper last played a full game four months ago in Japan and Rennie picked him on the back of training ground performances and a 60 minute trial match against Western Force last weekend.
“He did a really good job [in that game],” said Hooper. “It was good [for him] to get some touches, and just get the timing back.
“From what I understand, in a playmaker’s role it’s the timing and receiving passes, connecting with your combinations and stuff like that, that just takes a little bit of time to get back.
“That’s not to say that he hasn’t been playing a lot in the team environment here and getting his touches in there.
“But when you’ve got guys coming at you trying to iron you out, particularly when you are the number 10, it helps just to get that little bit of timing.”
Hooper, who like Cooper spent last season playing in Japan, said the style of play there wouldn’t detract from Quade’s sharpness.
“You play a hell of a lot with the ball up there,” said Hooper. “There’s a real intent to run from all over the field. Kicking isn’t a massive part of Japanese rugby, so that skill set that he has to utilise that there wouldn’t have gone down at all.
“He’s in great nick, as he always keeps himself in these days. The challenge for him tomorrow is going to be shifting back into that Test match mindset.”
On his milestone match as captain, and how he’s changed over the journey
“It’s never been a milestone of mine to rack up an amount of caps or captaincy appearances. I’ve just tried to keep doing my best and keep growing as a player,” Hooper said.
“My development from now to then is just being a lot more open to input from other people. Having that mindset,” said Hooper.
“When I was younger in a captaincy role, I tried to have the appearance that – not that you know it all – but that you’ve got it sorted, when it’s, in fact, the total opposite.
“I definitely thought at the time that if I was reaching out for help and assistance, that it probably showed a sign of weakness, or you probably shouldn’t be in that role.
“If I had my time again, I’d just be an open book. I was almost nervous to ask for it for a lot of the time.
“That’s what I’m trying to be now, someone that will try and absorb as much information, certainly have values that I think are important, but more than happy to be challenged.”
He was asked about his captaincy future.
“One thing I can control is I know I will give 100% every time I’m at training, every time I’m on the footy field, I’ll empty the tank, and I’ll do that as best as I possibly can,” Hooper answered.
“I’m going to bring that to the table all the time. In terms of the other stuff, then, if there’s a different option for the team that works better … everyone here wants to be part of a winning environment. I want to create a winning culture and leave that for the players once I’m long gone.”
On George Gregan and his leadership mentor
Hooper said he spoke to Gregan, “a bit” and received a text message of congratulations from him this week.
“He was around the group in 2019 moving into that World Cup, and he’s just fantastic for me,” Hooper said. “There’s a really good demeanor about him and he’s giving of his time and his knowledge. I’m very appreciative of that.
“I was still a bit of fanboy there for a bit – him and Bernie Larkham were my favourite players growing up. He was nice enough to shoot me a text yesterday which brought a smile to the face.”
Asked to name his captaincy inspiration, he was reluctant to settle on one, but chose former Waratahs’ skipper Dave Dennis.
“I’ve got a really close relationship with Dave, who was the Waratah captain early in my time,” Hooper said.
“I love what he brought to captaincy, and it’s probably quite different to what I would.
“But he was someone I saw as never being recognised as a leader in the sense that he wasn’t up in lights, but someone who really embodied being a great leader.
“There’s plenty of other amazing guys in the Wallaby jersey who have reached out to me over the years as well, which I’m super thankful for.”
On the critics and trolls
Hooper is not universally liked and clearly has detractors, but he believes that goes with the territory of being a sports star.
“Every athlete would get it,” Hooper said. “Like most people, you can get five or 10 good comments and then there’s just one bad one that will just live in your head forever.
“It’s the negative stuff, I guess because of human nature, that we focus on and dwell on the most.
“It’s why as athletes we are just so keen to fix the stuff that isn’t working, but sometimes neglect the stuff that really is working.
“That’s the hardest thing to come to terms with as an athlete, the fact that you could be doing exactly what you do, doing it really well and know that there’s going to be people out there that just don’t see the value in what you’re trying to put out there.
He said it was important to understand, “that’s okay, that’s no blight on yourself, or that’s no blight on the person that has that opinion.
“I’ve tried to learn to be comfortable and understand what I’m trying to do, be authentic and be open with that. Because if you do that, then you can go to sleep easy at night. And you know, it’s not like it’s water off a duck’s back, but it becomes more manageable.”
On facing the Springboks and what the Wallabies need to do
“I think they’ve developed their game lately,” said Hooper. “They’ve just more leant into their game even more, since we last played them in terms of how they use the ball.
“It’s super exciting that we get to play them. I never thought that the rugby world would be looking like how it has in the last 18 months. So we’re really thankful that they made the journey to come out here this year and it’s fantastic RA have put so much work together to get it all set up here in Queensland.”
After three Bledisloe Cup defeats, facing the World Champions is another daunting task, but Hooper says the game should have a different look.
“It’s a completely different picture what we’re seeing tomorrow, we think,” said Hooper. “We won’t know until we actually run out there on the field, but all data suggests that we’ll be getting the ball a lot of times through kicks.
“It’s a typical South African selection – a bunch of big men who want to have a good set piece and impose themselves physically on the game. So now how we manipulate that to take away some of that energy that they have is going to be important.
The Wallabies, he said, clearly need “improvement” from Bledisloe 3.
“A loss like that, we’ve got to be taking stuff from it,” he said. “We can’t just be going on the same trend, we’ve got to start to show improvements.
“I think if we do what we want out in the field, we’re going to really test the South Africans tomorrow.
“We’ve got to trust our game plan and trust the guys next to us to be able to deliver on that for longer periods of time.
“There were some really good patches last week. But we got to stick at it harder, trust those things and that belief in our game will start to develop. And then the snowball picks up momentum, so to speak.
“Playing in the right areas of the field, we’ve shown sometimes we’ve been a bit sloppy with our ball, we can be punished.
“So being smart with how we use the ball tomorrow, playing in the right areas against these guys.
“We know South Africa can a kick a penalty from the majority of the field, a drop goal as well, and like to build a score in that way. We’ve got to keep them out of that. And play smart.”