Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has brushed off his coach’s suggestion that more fans would consider him a “great” if he’d been fortunate enough to play in a more successful team, saying he’s “loved” being the main man in the current crop.
On Saturday, Hooper will lead Australia out for the 60th time, going clear of George Gregan as our most capped skipper.
Dave Rennie was reacting to questions over Hooper’s position in the hearts of rugby fans on Thursday saying he was “gobsmacked” that there were those who doubted his standing as a player.
On Friday, Hooper said: “I respect Dave a huge amount. Coming from someone that you respect, it’s obviously very nice and very flattering.
“This is the thing with rugby. I know that you get a lot of great comments, and there’s lots of positivity out there and there’s also people that see my play a different way. And that’s okay, too.
“That’s part of being a professional sportsman. Hearing that from your coaches is certainly awesome.”
Asked about whether he would have made more of an impression in better times for the Wallabies, Hooper batted away the question.
“That’s not even something to consider,” he said. “I’m here, it’s now and that’s all you can ever comment on. You never know the other stuff.
“I’ve been more than lucky to being around some of the players and some of the teams that I’ve been a part of. I feel I wouldn’t want it any other way. In my experience, I’ve loved it. You know, so that’s all I can comment on.”
Hooper also spoke about the inclusion of Nic White to the starting team and Sean McMahon to the squad, as well as plenty more in his Friday press conference. Here’s what he had to say.
On how he feels about breaking Gregan’s record
“I don’t really know at this stage – it’s a weird one, breaking someone else’s record and it’s not something you set out to do,” Hooper said.
“George was one of my favourite players – someone I looked up to in the way he competed and just really went for it every time he played and strove to be to be better every week.
“He was a great player and a great leader for his country. I wish I got the chance to play with him. I just missed out by a few years. But you hang around long enough, these things are going to happen.”
Hooper was asked if his team mates had reacted to this week’s milestone.
“They’ve given me a bit of shit! For sure, as any good team does,” Hooper laughed. “George texted me last week. I’ve had the privilege of being around George when he’s come into the Wallaby environment and he’s been super open and complimentary, and also giving of his knowledge and welcoming to ask any questions of him at any time. He’s a stand up bloke.”
On the starting role for Nic White, and suggestions that he’s an ‘angry’ player
“He’s had a bit of injury this year so he’s desperate to get on the park,” Hooper said. “He was outstanding in the Wallaby jersey last year, when he had some good opportunity there and came into camp again, feeling pretty fit and then copping a little bit of a knee niggle.
“He’s taken a while to really work back into the team and get to the point where he’s feeling fully fit and confident.
“I think we saw an outstanding half of rugby from him last week in terms of game control. Some of the stuff that’s not seen on telly, but then he also did have some big moments too – that 50/22 and then that right at the end that little pilfer.
“He’s a big game player. He’s obviously going to bring a fair bit of noise and energy and also bosses us around a bit, which is going to be good for us this week.
“I think he’ll really up the tempo and bring some of his positives to the game. We’re not looking for worlds apart when we make changes to this team. There’s certainly a structure that we want to stick to – to trust each other and then trust the gameplan.”
Hooper was asked about White’s moments in game one where his temper seemed to get the better of him. He threw his mouthguard to the ground in rage when Willie Le Roux’s knock down prevented a likely try, and later gave the evil eye to giant Springbok prop Vincent Koch.
— Elliott Smith (@elliottnz) September 12, 2021
“Nick’s not angry, he’s competitive,” said Hooper. “And he is ultimately competitive. We had a pool competition this week and I was versing him.
“When we started off, it was like, all nice and calm. And then we’ve got towards the end, like there’s no talking. We’re into each other at the end.
“He just wants to win everything. So you can imagine this guy hasn’t played a huge amount of rugby. And he gets on at halftime, he is buzzing to get on the field and make a difference. For Nick it’s about controlling that in the right way. But you love to play with guys that just want to win and want to compete and I love playing with Nick.”
On the return of Sean McMahon for the first time since 2017
“It’s great to have him back,” Hooper said. “I saw him briefly up in Japan and he was doing some really, really good things up there.
“He’s still 27 years old, so he’s still got so much footy ahead of him. What does he bring to the team? Firstly he’s a top bloke so he’s all in on any team that he plays for.
“He’ll get around all the players, bring a real good noise and energy to the group. He can cover 6-7-8 and he will do all of those really well. In terms of his game – brutal in defence.
“He loves to get into the physical side of the game and then with his ball carries he’s got some of the best leg drive in the business from a back rower.
“He’ll work his way through tackles, bust tackles just through sheer belligerence. Similar to Ardie Savea, certainly. Good in the lineout, good over the ball, an all round backrower.
“It’s been a long time since he’s been in here. So I’m sure he’s pumped up and going to rip into training, which is what we all expect.”
On his expectations of South Africa’s response
The Springboks had a low pass rate in the first match kicking the ball constantly, as predicted by Rennie prior to kick off.
“I think that pass rate will go up if they execute their game better,” Hooper said.
“I’m not saying they didn’t execute their game plan, I think they’ll just lean further into it.
“They’ve been an amazing team and we don’t anticipate them going away from from their game, but I think some of the other stats will probably come up if we allow them to play with the ball a bit more.
“They’ve got some real attacking threats in their backline, so when they do get to the right parts of the field, we know they can open teams up and move the ball around quite well. So we’ve got to not allow them to do that and continue to play in the right areas of the field. If we do that, then we anticipate seeing the same amount of kicks from them and trying to get into the areas of the field that they can play.
“They’re a fantastic set piece team and have been for a long time now. We know that that’s going to go up another gear tomorrow. We’re expecting a lot of heat in that scrum, line out, maul and around the breakdown. We know what they’re capable of and we’ve been preparing for it accordingly.”
On his decision to ‘take the three’ more often than usual
Hooper’s judgement around whether or not to take shots at goal or push for tries has seen him questioned by fans and pundits in the past. Last week Quade Cooper was given the opportunity to land seven from seven penalties, along with a conversion.
“We knew going into the game that they’re a team that who doesn’t want to play too much in their own end,” Hooper explained.
“When we get in there, we’ve got to try and bag some points. On the weekend, we didn’t have many opportunities in the first half to enter in.
“So when we did, the ones that were on offer, were quite kickable. There are benefits. Your kicker dials in pretty early, not with one off the sideline, so he starts to get that flow.
“We took some points and that gives us all confidence when you start seeing the scoreboard click up and then you get a good little try there and you’re starting to extend. It’s certainly something that we’ve got to be better at, and want to be better at – making the right call at the right time. It is a bit of a horses for courses. Who knows? Tomorrow it might be completely different. So you’ve got to react appropriately.”
On his resilience and ambition to go through to the World Cup
On Thursday Rennie raved about Hooper’s resilience and ability to stay fit, saying he expected him to break Gregan’s all time record of 139 Wallabies caps. Hooper has 113.
“I’ve had my injuries for sure,” Hooper said. “I don’t think it’s been a luck thing. I was up in the air last week about playing with stitches, those stitches hurt.
“There’s still that concern and that’s why I wore head gear, to give myself the best possible opportunity to stay on the park last week.
“Every player has a certain thing that they do to stay on the park and no one’s playing at 100%.
“There’s a lot of training. And that only is highlighted, the more years you go on. You’re rolling out on a Monday or Tuesday and things are sore. I was given advice early on in my career from coaches and players that you’ve got to find what works for you to manage to get on to the park on Saturday. So that takes a heap of refinement and learning different things.”
As for the future and taking this group through the World Cup, Hooper said that was “absolutely” his ambition.
“I’m an open book,” he said. “I’ll give 100% day in day out in training and whatever position I’m in, in this team. We’ve got to do this as a team, as a group.
“If I’m out one week, then someone who fills my role has to be able to do it in his way, do it authentically and take the team on the journey. It’s 100% a group effort. Yes the ‘C’ is next to my name. But there’s a lot happening and it’s going to be a team effort driving through to this World Cup.
“I’m so excited about what the group has to offer. We are driven to take this take this journey, one game at a time and see where that lands us in the next two and a half years.
“Obviously, you’d ask any national captain in the world what the goal is come the World Cup and it’s the same answer. So what we can do now is control what we can control each day each week building into it and the conversations that we have now and the actions that we put out there now.”