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'So stoked to have him back': Waratahs excited by Michael Hooper's return

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

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After a two-year absence from Super Rugby, Wallabies captain Michael Hooper returned to action for the Waratahs in their 38-14 win over the Fijian Drua on the Gold Coast on Friday.

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Absent from last year’s winless campaign as he enjoyed a season-long sabbatical with Toyota Verblitz in Japan’s Top League, Hooper helped propel the Waratahs to their fourth victory of the season with a try-scoring appearance from the bench.

The 30-year-old flanker cashed in on some brilliant drawing and passing by his teammates about 12 minutes after his introduction to the match, dotting down right by the posts to score his side’s fifth and penultimate try.

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It was an apt way to mark his first outing in the revamped Super Rugby Pacific, even if he was fortunate to have scored the try after having misread the slick move that illustrated the deft distribution skills of the Waratahs forwards.

The soft hands of No 8 Will Harris and stand-in captain Jed Holloway were enough to put first-five Tane Edmed into a gap, which he burst through with Hooper hanging just outside his right shoulder in support.

However, Hooper appeared to look for a short ball by running a tight line rather than staying out wide, which was where most of the space was.

Nevertheless, Edmed was still able to suck in two Drua defenders and slip the ball into the hands of Hooper, who had a clear run to the line from close range.

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“Funnily enough, it was Jed’s beautiful little ball to Tane [that created the try], and I’ll get into Hoops later because he ran the wrong line,” Waratahs head coach Darren Coleman joked after the match.

“He didn’t even know that play. He didn’t know the call. It was a play he hasn’t seen or practiced yet. He was meant to bounce out, not come in, but luckily it still worked. He popped up in support.”

Despite Hooper’s evident lack of cohesion with his teammates after having missed the first part of this season due to extended leave, Coleman remained excited about having his star man back on deck for the remainder of the season.

“Jed’s probably better to comment what he adds around the group on the field, but I know he was excited and he was nervous, and at half-time, he wasn’t missing anything. He was bouncing around, getting warm, ready to play, so it’s great,” Coleman said.

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“I think he’ll grow from that and he’ll get more confident, more match fit and he’ll be a trojan for us like he has been for everyone else he’s played for.”

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Holloway, who played alongside Hooper at Toyota Verblitz last year, joined Coleman in expressing his optimism about the prospect of having the 2021 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee back in a playing capacity.

“As well as what he offers on the field, just another steady head around helping me out, leadership and guiding these young guys around,” Holloway said post-match.

“After spending a year with him in Japan, and really spent a lot of time with him, I’m so stoked to have him back around the squad. What he adds in terms of experience and leadership is invaluable, so it’s just exciting.

“Exciting that he’s getting in some minutes and he’s fresh, he’s had 16 weeks off, even though he’s not getting too much sleep at the moment with the little one, but he’s itching to get some more minutes up his sleeve. Can’t wait to play with him more.”

This weekend’s win elevates the Waratahs to fourth place leading into next week’s bye, before they face the Western Force in Perth in what will be their final match against an Australian team ahead of six straight matches against Kiwi opposition.

Those six matches, which will close out their regular season, will be difficult to snare victories from given the dire record Australian franchises have against their New Zealand counterparts.

The Waratahs, for example, haven’t won against a Kiwi team since their victory over the Crusaders in March 2019.

For that reason, Coleman understands the importance of securing wins against fellow Australian outfits, and the Fijian Drua, before heading into their trans-Tasman fixtures, which get underway during Melbourne’s Super Round in three weeks.

“We come back from the bye and we’ve got [the Force] in Perth. For us, that’ll be closure on the Aussie leg of it, or our pool, or whatever you want to call it, and then we go into the final [six] games against the [New Zealand] pool,” Coleman said.

“Really important we get the win in Perth. We get the win, that’ll take us to 5-3 into the Kiwi leg. It’ll just take a little bit of pressure off.

“We’re obviously going to need a win or two in that Kiwi leg to make the playoffs, but I’d prefer to be only chasing one or two wins in that rather than three or four.

“For the moment, I just want the boys to enjoy the night. They’ve got a few days off now, so it’s awesome for them. They’ve been going hard for a while.

“Have a beer tonight, enjoy themselves and enjoy the bye, and then we’ve got to get over to Perth and win that one. That’s crucial.”

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