What now for Michael Hooper, the man who exploded on the world rugby scene like an ‘Energizer Bunny’ but has been rapidly running out of charge in the past 12 months?
South Africa named their injured skipper Siya Kolisi in their squad this week, while the All Blacks gave a spot to Brodie Retallick – even though he will miss at least the first two games. There has been no such latitude for the 125-Test veteran – Australia’s longest serving captain.
Jones has talked up his squad building philosophy as leaving space for five good bloke picks – players who will contribute to the mood in a long tournament. That’s not Hoops’ destiny either despite his powers of motivation.
“Love him or hate him, people have to understand to be at that level for that long, to have played 100 Tests and become the longest serving Australian captain, took so much mental toughness and resilience in the face of adversity,” his former teammate Will Genia wrote for this site two years ago when Hooper passed George Gregan as the captaincy record holder.
“You look across and see him and know he’s just going to go balls out for 80 minutes. He’s going to chase everything, tackle everything. He’s going to carry the ball in the 80th minute like he does in the first.
“There are only a few players, where you think, ‘man, I feel so much better that he’s on my team’. Hoops is one of them.”
It’s 11 years since Hooper entered the Wallabies set up ahead of games against Scotland and Wales.
“He was shy and he kept to himself. Quite the alternative type of kid, he had grown up in Manly and loved to be out on the water on his surfboard, or cruising down the street on his skateboard,” said Genia.
“I remember watching him that year in Super Rugby and thinking ‘this kid’s like the Energizer Bunny’.
“The first thing that stuck with me was his ability as a ball carrier. He had the No.7 on his back but almost played like a centre.
“He was quicker than most backs, more agile than most of them too, but he possessed the tenacity and ferociousness of a backrower. It was the perfect combination and he’s refined his game to become elite in many facets, and much more than a traditional backrower.”
That “balls out 80 minutes” approach is tough to sustain for any player, and Hooper began to pay a physical and emotional toll.
A year ago he left the Wallabies camp in Argentina for a mental health break and try as he might he hasn’t captured the same heights as a player since.
“I’d been playing the game for a long time, had some great changes in my life happen this year and I think there was a lot of things running through my head that showed up in Argentina,” said Hooper when he eventually addressed the situation.
“And Argentina wasn’t the place where I needed or was able to sort those things out.”
He didn’t elaborate, but he and his wife had a child early in 2022. He also suffered after effects of a high shot in Super Rugby last season that he described at the time as a “pretty significant knock” that left him rattled for a few weeks.
“I wanted to be around family, I wanted to be in a place that I could put the time in to those things I needed to put in,” Hooper said.
“And that doesn’t mean that I’m sitting here now completely cured. It’s not like that at all, it’s just that at that point in time I needed to be somewhere else and that wasn’t Argentina.”
He was asked about the World Cup – which was then 13 months on the horizon.
“Those experiences [World Cups] are amazing to be a part of but I’m also realistic. You can get injured going into a World Cup year and miss it,” he said.
“We’re flying out and the guy gets injured on the way out. You have no control over some of these things, and I guess I’ve tried to control a lot of how it would look for myself.
“Part of things that led to the situation I was in is trying to put undue control on things. The World Cup is certainly a great cherry but why I play is I love competing, I love being part of this team.
“It’s not a forever thing. I watched the games and there were some things I missed about being in the environment and they were about competing.
“I missed watching the games and being out there and being with the team and representing and that stuff, so that was the lure to get back to and try and realise my potential in the game.”
Hooper came back without the burden of captaincy, to back up James Slipper, and featured in the final days of Dave Rennie, who had supported him privately and publicly as Hooper battled his demons last year.
But there were signs that even if Hooper’s mindset was on the way to repair, his body was in decline. He was a disappointment among many for the Waratahs this season.
His time with the club ended in quite harrowing scenes with Hooper looking on mournfully from the bench.
It might have been easy for Jones to move on straight away, with Fraser McReight and Tom Hooper emerging as options for the No.7, but instead the coach made Hooper a co-captain and described his partnership with Slipper as a “powerful force” that would give the Wallabies a “winning edge”.
“We want to do things differently but better. And one of the things about any great team is that the head’s experienced, and we want to experience up there,” said Jones.
“If you’ve played 120 Tests, or you’ve captained your country for 65 Tests, you’ve seen it all. You get an idea of what you should do, and we don’t want to lose that. That’s what great teams are about.”
Hooper has never been universally loved by fans, and the jackals were ready to pounce as his form and fitness wavered.
Then, after Bledisloe I, Jones’ boosterism gave way to caution when he was asked about Hooper’s calf injury.
“He’s a long way away, mate. We’ll have to wait and see.”
And with that Hooper’s Test career is likely done and dusted.
“For what he’s done for the game and Wallabies brand in a difficult period over the last 10 years, plus his current leadership and ability, I’d be picking him,” said Tim Horan earlier this week.
“But he’s probably the No.2 or No.3 in line, fourth if they do go with Samu, who would be one of my first forwards picked.
“So if he doesn’t go, I hope Rugby Australia give him the option (to announce his Test retirement).”
So indeed, what next?
Hooper is out of professional contracts at the end of the year, with no news yet on his plans for 2024. He has shown a desire to play for Australia at the Paris Olympics, but there are hoops to jump through contracually for that to happen.
He would have value in Japan – where he has played before – and Europe, although the number of games played by clubs there would severely test him.
This week he told an audience at a Waratahs function that he was desperate to get to the World Cup – but if he didn’t then maybe he’d hang up the boots.