The reason why Michael Hooper can't make the Wallabies cut - not even as a bench player
After 10 years spent playing rugby in Australia, incumbent Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has announced his decision to head overseas on a six-month sabbatical.
During the COVID-19 pay negotiations, the players association struck a deal with Rugby Australia that would allow certain players to take advantage of a sabbatical clause to compensate for pay cuts.
Of the players eligible, Hooper is arguably the most in need of a rest. Throughout his career, he’s rightly welcomed praise and accolades for his energetic, tireless devotion to Australian rugby.
Logically, he’d need a break eventually.
Hooper has battled constant scrutiny over the years, mainly due to a perceived lack of size while playing arguably the most combative position on the field.
To his credit, he’s deservedly held his spot with his high work rate, ever-present involvement in the game and his unquestionable leadership qualities. This was even enough to see David Pocock, who many considered to be the best openside in the game, move to number eight for the Wallabies.
But even though he’ll likely be back for test matches next year, the sabbatical suggests that he’s into the backend of his days in gold. A new wave of promising young talent once again raises concerns over his standing within Dave Rennie’s plans, and his decision to head abroad seems like an attempt to see off the pressure from a new generation of challengers.
We could see a rejuvenated Michael Hooper return to Australia’s shores in time for tests in better nick than we’ve seen in recent years. For his international ambitions, he might need that. Just look at how some time in Japan helped Sam Whitelock.
Let’s take a look at how under pressure he actually is.
Dave Rennie named his most recent players of national interest (PONI) list last week, and unsurprisingly Hooper was named. Also selected as openside flankers were Queensland Reds duo Liam Wright and Fraser McReight.
Both players have been fantastic around the breakdown in particular throughout Super Rugby AU, with the former leading the competition with 20 turnovers to his name. McReight has also impressed with 11 even though he’s come off the bench in two matches, while Hooper has just eight from seven games played.
The Queenslanders have also proved to be reliable on defence, with Reds captain Wright again the best of the three with a tackle accuracy of 90.53 percent. Even though Hooper has only missed 13 tackles in Super AU, he has the worst percentage out of the trio at 87.74 percent.
But let’s not discredit Hooper completely.
Playing in his 150th Super Rugby match a few weeks ago, he was lively around the park and actively looked to get involved – classic Hooper. This approach to the game has seen the flanker run the most metres from the most carries out of the three over the first eight rounds, while also leading these flankers in try assists.
But when it comes to what a team needs the most from a flanker, most would agree: defence or probably efficiency around the breakdown are key. Hooper has been bettered by his younger counterparts in both of those areas so far in AU.
Of the three, Wright in particular is gunning for the Wallabies seven jersey despite playing mostly blindside in Super AU. The 22-year-old has been one of the standout players from the Australian competition, and his leadership has grown in leaps and bounds.
With Dave Rennie looking to usher in a golden generation of Wallabies success with so many young players selected in the PONI list, the team will need a leader for the future; one-test Wallaby Wright could be just that.
His teammate McReight was also last year’s Junior Wallabies captain and led Brisbane City in last season’s National Rugby Championship campaign. Another future candidate for the Wallabies captaincy.
So, what’s Hooper’s point of difference if he doesn’t have the captaincy?
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In January, Rennie said that Hooper would have to earn the captaincy, and there’s definitely a case to suggest that he hasn’t. He shows plenty of heart, but that and leadership can’t keep getting him selected when the country can’t win big games – it’s time for change.
When test rugby resumes, the Wallabies need a new-look back row to steer them towards success.
Harry Wilson appears all but certain of making the number eight jersey his own, and could bring the combination of himself, Wright and McReight to the test arena quite comfortably.
But on the PONI list, Wilson was also listed as a blindside flanker.
If he’s named at six and they elected to go with Isi Naisarani or the man I’m about to mention at eight, then it simply wouldn’t make sense to leave out both Queensland flankers; Hooper would have to be left out.
The player that I just alluded to has been a particular standout recently, and is really pushing his case for either the gold six or eight jumper.
Pete Samu has significantly better tackle accuracy than even Wright, currently at 92.17 percent; missing just four tackles in his six AU games. The 28-year-old has also scored two tries, made five more clean breaks than Hooper and has better discipline, having not conceded a penalty in AU against Hooper’s eight.
I know though, very different players.
But, the point that needs to be made is that there’s so much back row talent within Australian rugby, and promising future leaders, that Hooper simply can’t make the cut in the medium term – not even as a bench player.
The Wallabies need impact off the bench by way of power, brute strength and ferocity; that back rower position simply then has to go to Isi Naisarani.
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Naisarani has had 49 carries in his three AU games since returning from injury, for 97 metres. His work rate and ability to get over the gain line is exactly what Australia need off the bench.
So for me, there’s three potential combinations for the Wallabies back row.
First, Hooper retains his position in the starting side due to his leadership qualities, lining up alongside either Wright or Samu at six, and Wilson at eight.
Next, the Reds trio of Wright, McReight and Wilson fill up the back row, while there’s no place for Hooper in the 23. When it comes to leadership concerns, Matt To’omua or Allan Alaalatoa should probably take the captaincy while Wright is named as a vice.
Finally, Wright plays openside while Harry Wilson lines up at eight, and Samu is named at blindside. Again, no room for Hooper as Naisarani comes off the bench.
I believe that the third option with To’omua as captain and Wright as a vice makes the most sense.
Hooper’s decision to explore what rugby can offer for six months next year is a risk, and it might just payoff for him. He could come back better than ever and save his place as a Wallabies regular.
But all things considered, it seems like it’s the beginning of the end for a test career which needs to be celebrated.
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