Michael Hooper and his Wallabies teammates quickly discovered just what last week’s stirring win over the Springboks meant to the outside world, and they’re determined to keep the good times rolling against Argentina.
Speaking in his pre-game press conference on Friday, Hooper gave telling example of how the public perceptions and expectations have increased with back-to-back wins over South Africa, after being outclassed in three Bledisloe Cup games.
“It’s probably fair to say most of the most of the guys’ phones were blowing up. But you know that wasn’t the case two weeks ago, and we can’t forget that,” Hooper said.
Finding a balance between hype and despair, is Hooper’s challenge.
“We have high expectations of what we want to do and where we think we can get to. That’s the most important thing for us,” Hooper said.
“We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror, look at the game we want to play and try and get better at each day and each game.
“We’ve had two decent games and we want to continue that and we don’t want to go back. We know [Argentina] are going to be flying into us tomorrow. So how we manage that, and then control what our game plan looks like, is important.”
Hooper spoke at length about Saturday’s challenge, but also the impact of Quade Cooper and James O’Connor and the courage of their coaches to back them, prospects of the northern hemisphere games going ahead and his own fitness.
On the challenge posed by Argentina
“Any Test match can go either way,” Hooper said.
“What’s great about the current state of rugby in world is it’s game on every time. Just because we’ve had two results and an improved result from one week to the next, that’s our focus. Improve again on that.
“Argentina pose very different threats, but no less dangerous. When they’re on they’re a hard team.
“We saw that last year, when we got out to a bit of a comfortable lead in Newcastle and they pulled us back. And then it was vice versa, we managed to just get a draw over the line there in Parramatta last year.
“In the games they’ve played, even though the score may not suggest it, they’ve made the All Blacks work, they made it difficult for them at times.”
While expectations are high that the Pumas will target Australia with high kicks, Hooper is expecting a balanced assault.
“They are capable of some exciting rugby,” he said. “They’ve got some some top athletes in their team. They’re great over the ball as well in terms of turnovers – the hooker is outstanding in that area – so they can get the ball back and they can hurt you if you’re sloppy.
“If our discipline’s poor tomorrow as it was at times last year they go 3, 6, 9 on the scoreboard pretty easy and then all of a sudden you’re chasing again.”
On the impact of Quade Cooper and James O’Connor
Hooper said the successful return of the veteran pair showed “their character and their willingness to get back into the fold and play rugby, become better players on and off the field.
“They’ve brought so much to the group. With Quade there’s a fair bit talked about what he’s doing on the field, but off the field for some of our young flyhalves and how we control and move the game around, he’s been fantastic.”
Hooper praised the coaches, led by Dave Rennie, who were willing to “give them a shot”
“The luxury of Rabs is he could play so many positions,” Hooper added. “It’s a good and a bad thing to have as a coach. I guess when you’ve got depth in many positions, a lot of guys putting their hands up, finding the right combination, the balance between physicality, smarts, a bit of agility and X Factor is something that we’re going to have to work out. But it’s a good problem to have.”
Hooper said as the team’s leader, Cooper’s experience had stood out.
“Quade has certainly been great in terms of his leadership around the on field control of the game,” said Hooper.
“What’s been noticeable there is it’s time in the saddle. So often as a 10, all these guys have skill, but it’s a time thing.
“You can imagine the hours of tape he’s watch compared to a second or third year 10, or the time he’s been on the park.
“When you’re going into a game, you’re just confirming it on the weekend, as opposed to trying to work it out on the spot. So that’s what he’s really brought. And he’s also imparting that on some of the other guys as well, which has been super valuable.”
Hooper was asked if he saw Cooper as a long term option through to the World Cup. He deftly side stepped it.
“I’m sure Dave will be picking the best possible players whenever that time comes,” said Hooper.
“So right now he’s doing that. He’s picking a team that’s suitable for Argentina. In a few weeks, it’s going to be England, or Japan.
“And then in two years time, it’s going to be the same. We’re going to have to cut a squad down to 31. That’s going to be really tricky, and he’ll be picking a team that he thinks can win a Bledisloe next year or win a World Cup the year after that.”
On the Wallabies’ promising youth
“The youth of the group brings a lot energy, they’re hungry to get on the park, that’s only amplified when there’s some good results,” Hooper said.
“People are dying to get on the field at the moment. What any coach would be comfortable with is that you could have two different teams running out.
“You want two players in each position and if you rotate one of them, you know, the job’s going to get done.
“That’s what we need to grow as a team and we’re still on that path – that it’s team first and how we want to play Wallaby rugby is of key importance.”
On the confidence gained from winning
“Confidence is higher and also belief within our game plan and what we’re trying to execute is greater as well,” said Hooper.
“The pitfalls of that are not sticking to that and moving away from a game plan that we’re trying to develop. That’s been the focus of this week.
“After losses you’re trying to find that solution. Then if you win it’s about okay, how can you grow that and be comfortable with it while working on the little things, and keeping nutting down stuff that that has worked well.
“Not looking for miracle passes or anything but building a score. That’s what Test match rugby is about and we have to be true to the fact that it is an 80 minute performance.
“We spoke so much earlier in the year about only delivering 40-50 minutes and then in 15 minutes just giving New Zealand way too much and getting . Building a performance is something that we keep need to keep working on and keep growing.”
On Rob Leota’s first start in the back row
“He’s a pretty imposing bloke. Big frame, gets a lot of go forward and has done for the Rebels all year,” Hooper said. “He’s been training well in the squad. To get a start… he’s got a really good work rate in the midst of some of the physicality he brings to the game. It’s a great opportunity for him tomorrow night.”
On Pete Samu’s importance off the bench
“The guy has it. He has the ability to change a game. He’s an all round player, over the ball presence, tackle presence,” said Hooper.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, is his ball carrier ability and his change of pace. What you want out of a finisher is the ability to change the pace of a game.
“It’s not necessarily coming up with a massive play. But it’s certainly upping our energy of the guys who have been on the park.
“He has had some influential plays, which is also great, but it’s about changing the tempo of a game and Pete’s been outstanding in that space in the last couple of weeks and a really vital part of the team.”
On his own fitness and wanting to play every game
Hooper was asked how he felt after playing almost every minute, this campaign bar a brief period where he received stitches to a head wound.
“I feel good. God, you don’t want to miss a Test, particularly in your back yard. The strength and conditioning guys have been managing players with high loads.
“Marika was unbelievable last week, in terms of the output that guy puts in. Incredible. Our staff have been good at managing that and I’m in that boat too. So making sure that you can deliver good performance on Saturdays is paramount.”
On the likelihood of a Northern hemisphere tour
“It’s going to be interesting to see what it looks like,” Hooper said. “There seems like a fair bit of organisation to go.
“When we’re standing, singing anthems up there, then it’s going to be a reality. It seems like a world away at the moment, but exciting nonetheless.
“Once upon a time, it was a guarantee, you’d be up there playing in Twickenham, or any of those stadiums. Seems like a bit of a pipe dream, but one that might be around a corner and how good would that be?
“To get in front of those crowds and great preparation for us heading into a 2023 World Cup. It’s probably a really good time for our team to be exposed to that environment and know we’re going to expect that come a couple years time.”