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Why Michael Hooper should win World Rugby's Men's 15s Player of the Year

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

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After some speculation and discussion, coach Dave Rennie made a significant decision last year by reappointing Michael Hooper as the captain of the Wallabies.

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People had been questioning Hooper’s place in the side with his size and versatility having come under fire. The rise of the next generation of players including former Australian U20s captain Fraser McReight was putting pressure on Hooper.

But the star flanker continued to let his performances on the park do the talking, and since returning from a sabbatical in Japan, is now coming off arguably his best season in Wallabies gold.

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Can the All Blacks bounce back against France after being ruthlessly beaten by Ireland?
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Can the All Blacks bounce back against France after being ruthlessly beaten by Ireland?

Hooper was rewarded by World Rugby on Monday night [AEST] for his performances this year, named as one of four nominees for the Men’s 15s Player of the Year award.

Should the 30-year-old be awarded the accolade, he’d become the first Australian men’s player to claim the award in its history. Ireland legend Keith Wood was the first player to take home the award in 2001, with players from six different countries having won it since.

Australia’s Samu Kerevi is also in contention for what would be a historic achievement for a Wallabies player, despite only having played a handful of Tests. France scrumhalf Antoine Dupont and England lock Maro Itoje have also been nominated.

While he’s already cemented his status as a legend of Australian rugby after winning three John Eales Medals, it’s time Michael Hooper was immortalised on an international level after a season deserving of such prestige.

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Earlier this year, Hooper became the most-capped Australian captain of all-time, passing the previous record held by George Gregan. He’s also helped the men in gold rise as high as third in the world rankings, and to two significant wins over reigning World Cup winners South Africa.

The Wallabies started this season with a two-point win over France in Brisbane. The men in gold went on to win that highly competitive three match series after losing the second Test by two, but winning the third by three.

While Hooper started the season with some steady numbers and a try, the loss in Melbourne was arguably his finest showing this year.

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Hooper has always been a player who quite clearly prides himself on his work rate. His resilience and tenacity are always on show but especially when the Wallabies are playing well, his stat line reaps the rewards.

A cornerstone of what a flanker has to do is compete at the breakdown and Hooper did that to an elite level in this Test.

He had four turnovers, with his first leading to the Wallabies’ opening points of the night. Even though he’s giving up some size, his Rugby IQ and quickness saw him beat two French players to the ruck as he raked the ball back for his side.

Off the kick-off that followed, Wallabies speedster Marika Koroibete made a lengthy break up around half-way. The closest player to the star winger was Hooper, who was also the first to the breakdown inside the French half.

Later on, Hooper was heavily involved in the leadup to Jake Gordon’s try just before the half-time break.

This passage of play began with an attacking lineout five metres out from the French tryline, with Hooper taking the ball to ground in this instance. But after the backs spread the ball halfway across the field, Hooper was back in the thick of it soon after.

He played scrumhalf two phases after the maul collapsed, before supporting Matt Philip to that breakdown. Another two phases later, he got his hands back on the ball for a hit up, drew French players to the Wallabies’ right, which created the space needed out left for Gordon to run it without any issues.

On the defensive side of the contest, Hooper had two try savers in the second-half. Replacement Romain Taofifenua was stopped millimetres from dotting the ball down, with the skippers desperate defence stopping the towering forward in his tracks.

Just shy of the hour mark, France made a break from inside their 22, but as you can see in the video below, Hooper ran nearly 60-metres to make a tackle that is in itself, a reflection of his work rate and impact. He also nearly got up and won the ball at the breakdown too – his abundance of energy is such an asset to the Wallabies.

Hooper then capped off a truly great showing with a try of his own which was a reflection of the hard working player that he is.

Tom Banks made a break and managed to pass the ball to Andrew Kellaway via a deflection. Hooper was the first to Kellaway and reaped the rewards, having the ball popped up to him before he ran into the left corner without too many concerns.

It was one Test, and an exceptional performance at that, but it was no fluke and I guess that’s what the Player of the Year award looks to reward.

He may have won four turnovers in this Test, but that’s just four of the 19 across his Tests this season. He won 10 more turnovers than any other Wallabies player, 12 more than New Zealand’s Ardie Savea, and 9 more than Springbok’s captain Siya Kolisi.

Even though he’s been ruled out of the final Test of the year through injury, Hooper will also likely finish the year with the most tackles made of any Wallabies player. Currently, he’s made 30 more tackles than Rob Valetini who’s second on that list.

As well as his leadership, another part of Hooper’s game which has proven very useful for the Wallabies has been his passing. The flanker’s 94 passes and 73 carries have contributed to him becoming a necessary link between the forwards and backs.

But again, Hooper’s work rate is simply exceptional and this year we’ve seen the best of that.

His performance against France was just one of a number of Tests this year where he stood up, led by example, and consistently made an impact on games in ways that other international players can only dream of doing.

Statistically this year he’s been great, and that in itself warrants his nomination at the very least, for being the best of the best.

But sometimes, his efforts go unnoticed or unrewarded because a lot of his impact is off the ball and isn’t recorded on stat sheets. But it’s unquestionable that Hooper has silenced the naysayers, as he’s continued to embody what a leader needs to be, on his way to what should be a historic Player of the Year award.

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