Captain Michael Hooper has withdrawn from the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship Test against Argentina 24 hours before kick-off, and is headed home to Australia after saying he isn’t in the right “mindset” to lead or represent the country.
The tireless flanker had been named to lead the side in his 122nd Test on Sunday morning (AEST) but his immediate playing future is in doubt.
“While this decision did not come easily I know it is the right one for me and the team at this point in time,” Hooper said in a statement.
“My whole career I’ve looked to put the team first and I don’t feel I am able to fulfill my responsibilities at the moment in my current mindset.”
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said there were no signs through the week of Hooper’s anguish.
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“Nothing that was evident to us in how he trained, how he contributed around the team, around leadership was excellent but clearly he’s been struggling a bit and masking that pretty well,” Rennie told reporters from Argentina on Saturday (AEST).
“Obviously he’s been able to suppress things over the past handful of weeks and so we certainly weren’t aware of anything but he’s such a professional and he was able to get on and do the job.
“He addressed the team today which took an enormous amount of courage to let them know that he’s not OK and that he felt it was best for himself and for the team that he gets home.
“It was an easy decision to let him go home where he will get plenty of support around him.”
Rennie added: “It’s not uncommon in life, is it? It’s a cross section of society and often men will say bugger all and suffer in silence.
“It took a lot of courage for him to address the group so a huge amount of respect for everyone.”
Hooper sought help from the Wallabies team doctor Sharron Flahive, who put the wheels in motion for his return.
Fellow Test centurion James Slipper will captain the side in Mendoza, while Fraser McReight will replace Hooper in the number seven jersey.
Rennie said that McReight was match-ready after recently playing in the Australia A Pacific Nations Cup.
“He’s had three 80-minute performances so conditioning-wise it’s not an issue.
“They use the same structures as us and he has been in our group in the past and so he’ll fit seamlessly.”
Hooper captained Australia during their recent 2-1 series loss to England at home and has been a regular presence in the side since making his debut in 2012.
The Wallabies, who have a World Cup in France next year, return to Australia for Rugby Championship Tests against South Africa and New Zealand beginning later this month.
Rennie said 30-year-old Hooper hadn’t given any indication regarding his playing future and they didn’t have a timeline for his return.
Since debuting in 2012 Hooper has played in 118 of Australia’s 126 Tests, with 115 starts.
In May, Hooper gave an indication of the strain of international rugby when he was interviewed in the wake of Australia winning the rights to host the 2027 World Cup.
“I will be in the stands with a beer in hand. Very much so,” he said when asked if he might play in the tournament.
“How good will that be, to be a part of rugby and to experience it on the other side of the fence.
“I’d hope there’s a (number) seven that’s pushing me well out of it by that point.”
He added: “You never say never but I’ve got this 18-month period and the Tuesdays get harder and harder and it’s like how much you are willing to take for the rewards, which is we get to do what you love.”
“It would awesome to be a part of but I’ve been absolutely so lucky with my career,” he added.
“I’m up lapping up every game that I can get and however long that takes me, happy days.”
After the England series finished there was some media talk about whether it was the right time to ease the burden on Hooper and name a new captain.
The Roar’s Harry Jones noted Hooper played with more freedom for the Waratahs this season when he was relieved of captaincy.
“Certainly changing the captain is a momentous thing,” Jones wrote. “But Tahs’ example shows that Hooper is first and foremost a team player. He could also be freer to play more over the ball. As a test skipper, entering the thief or ping sweepstakes can be awkward. Then there is the additional burden of leadership.”
Wallabies assistant Scott Wisemantel said he hadn’t heard the chatter.
“What does Michael bring? Look, he’s smart. Tactically, on the field and in communication with the referees, he has developed extremely well, especially in the last three years. He’s a world class player. You look at his position, how other teams rate him, he’s world class,” said Wismantel.
For his teammates, Hooper is “adored. He’s a strong leader. He’s a great listener. And then it compresses and decomposes all the information. He’ll either rephrase it, or he’ll come up with an opinion and a strategy, and we either disagree or we agree, and then we go in a direction and away we are. He’s brilliant at that.”
Slipper has similar experience levels and has stressed the importance of the team starting well in Mendoza.
“It is an important part of the game, the start, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter who you are playing, playing catch up rugby against anyone will get you away from how you want to play the game,” Slipper said.
“For us, it is just about nailing our detail and it is one thing to create opportunities and another to take them. To be honest, this week we have spoken a lot about our detail and our execution. If there is one place you want to start well it’s here, the Argentina team and the fans are very passionate and you can’t let that build.”