Michael Hooper is now 31 years old. One day after the 2023 World Cup climaxes with the final at the Stade de France on 28th October, he will turn 32. The 124-cap Wallaby legend is already looking at the spectre of retirement from the game he loves, and he is looking it squarely in the face.
Hooper is one of the very best openside flankers to have played the game in the professional era, in any country. But the unmistakable signs of entropy over a long and glittering career surfaced when the Waratah back-rower unexpectedly withdrew from the Australian squad to play Argentina on the eve of the 2022 Rugby Championship.
Like any other elite contact sport, rugby had taken its pound of flesh. Anyone who has watched Brian O’Driscoll’s searingly honest telly series After The Roar will have some inkling just how deep the rabbit hole of mental health issues for professional sportsmen goes.
It is no different for Michael Hooper. This is how he took up the story at the time, in an interview with Georgina Robinson of the Sydney Morning Herald:
“I’ve got high expectations of myself. Pulling out of a game is certainly right up there with something I couldn’t have seen myself doing.
“I’d been playing the game for a long time, had some great changes in my life happen this year and I think there were a lot of things running through my head that showed up in Argentina.
“Argentina wasn’t the place where I could sort those things out. I wanted to be around family, I wanted to be in a place that I could put the time in that I wanted to put in.
“That doesn’t mean now that I’m sitting here completely cured, it’s not like that at all. But at that point in time, I needed to be somewhere else and that wasn’t Argentina.”
At the time, Hooper was willing to pass on the mantle of captaincy to the likes of Brumbies duo James Slipper and Allan Alaalatoa: “I do have a wealth of experience in this outfit and I want to be able to pass that on to younger guys like Slips and Allan, and the coaching staff too.”
Although he returned to the international fold on the November tour, and subsequently to Super Rugby Pacific action early in 2023, the feeling persists that he cannot quite shake off the rough beast of impending retirement which is slouching towards him.
If Michael Hooper has come back to the game to which he has given so much over his stellar career, the game has not come back to him with quite the same generosity.
Some of the off-field doubts he expressed back in October 2022 still hold true of his play on it, seven months later:
“As a younger man I viewed asking for help as a bit of a weakness. That’s the way I viewed it. You want to feel like you have it all worked out. I certainly didn’t.
“The beautiful thing about rugby and the hard thing about sport is there’s always the next goal, so you can move on and you can move on quick.
“It came around suddenly. It was probably exacerbated being overseas but certainly, where I’m at in my career and things like that, you start to look at [life] post rugby.
“I’ve got a family now. There’s a lot more elements than being a 22-year-old pretty much concerned about yourself. That played into it. I think it’s only natural that as an athlete, there’s going to be a transition point in my career, and that was a factor.”
If Michael Hooper has come back to the game to which he has given so much over his stellar career, the game has not come back to him with quite the same generosity. Whether he appears in sky blue or in green and gold, nagging doubts remain about just how much there is left in a rugby tank which once seemed inexhaustible.
In an article a few weeks ago, I examined the stats of the three main contenders in Eddie Jones’ new Wallaby squad for the core No 7 role, Hooper, Fraser McReight and Brad Wilkin.
Purely in terms of primary aspects like tackle completion percentage, ball-carrying interval and on-ball pilfers, Hooper was beginning to fall slightly behind his fiercest rivals for the same spot. Three rounds later, the stats still do not offer Eddie Jones any conclusive evidence that Michael Hooper has returned to the best version of himself.
Here are the attacking stats:
These are the figures on defence:
Both the bigger man (Brad Wilkin) and the smaller openside (Fraser McReight) are currently squeezing more value out of their carries and making more tackles on defence. Other points of difference include the four lineouts won by Wilkin and the 12 balls at the breakdown stolen by McReight.
In Super Rugby Pacific 2023, McReight has moved far ahead of his Australian rivals in terms of his ability to identify opportunities to turn over ball at the tackle area, and his conversion rate is two or three times higher when he locks on to the ball.
It was no different in Townsville on Saturday evening, with McReight and Hooper going head to head in the local derby between the Queensland Reds and the New South Wales Waratahs. The Queensland man ran for 65 metres off 13 carries compared to Hooper’s 6 runs for 23 metres. On defence, McReight had four turnovers off eight defensive ruck appearances compared to Hooper’s zero from two. It was one of Queensland’s few individual victories in a game dominated by their State-of-Origin rivals.
What did it look like in practice? Inevitably, much of the action with two livewire No 7s in direct opposition orbited around the breakdown. The Reds like to have McReight hang off the initial tackle so that he can attack the ball on the ground at the right moment. His first success came in the 20th minute of the game:
McReight drops in behind Harry Wilson at first contact and then pounces like a griffon vulture on the prairie. Successful pilferers are often vulnerable to a turnover themselves immediately after winning the pill, but McReight is so fast to his feet that there is no question of him returning the favour to the Tahs.
Where McReight looked razor-sharp, Michael Hooper appeared uncharacteristically sluggish in his approach to the tackle zone:
The ex-Wallaby skipper gets off the side of the scrum a step or two behind his young challenger and that means McReight is first to the ball, with neither Izaia Perese nor the late-arriving Hooper able to move him off it.
The question of urgency was reinforced by another incident at the tackle area in the 36th minute:
The ball is exposed, and there to be won after Reds’ second row Connor Vest takes an opportunity to counter-ruck, but where McReight is alive to the possibilities presented, the response from his opposite number is surprisingly apathetic.
McReight’s final turnover of the game also involved another head-to-head with Michael Hooper, on this occasion from a lineout:
Hooper takes off Queensland prop Sef Fa’agase after a carry by Langi Gleeson, leaving McReight to his team-mate Tetera Faulkner. The result is predictable, with referee Angus Gardner whistling another penalty to the Reds.
Even on the rare occasions when Michael Hooper got to the ball ahead of Fraser McReight, the Queenslander still ended up on the right side of the ledger:
This time Hooper gets his hands on the ball presented by Tate McDermott. But Fraser McReight is still on hand to repossess it in the next slice of action.
Michael Hooper’s solitary win over his rival came with the Reds looking to run the ball back out of their own 22 late on in the second period:
Both 7s are running the outside channel, one in attack and the other on defence; but on this occasion, Hooper delivers an excellent chop tackle to set up the jackaling opportunity for Gleeson.
It is impossible not to sympathize with the sporting icon who suddenly tires of the hamster wheel of travelling, training and playing, and finds him or herself in a psychological black hole. The endless diet of quick-fire ‘highs’ are not enough, and fame is no protection – as both ex-Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll and now, ex-skipper of the green-and-gold Michael Hooper, have found. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
At the same time, Wallaby head coach Eddie Jones will be increasingly concerned that Hooper has not returned from his private underworld as the same player he was before the dark descent ever began. The desire may be there, but the concrete outcomes on the field are not.
As a result, Hooper is coming under pressure to justify his place in the Wallabies starting XV; from men in bigger bodies, like Brad Wilkin, and from smaller and quicker rivals with similar strengths, like Queensland’s Fraser McReight. Both Wilkin’s all-round consistency, and McReight’s prowess over the tackle ball are becoming very hard to ignore.
It is an unwanted problem at a time when Eddie Jones needs all the experience he can muster. There will be plenty of secretive finger-crossing that Michael Hooper can find his way back, all the way back to the outstanding version of an openside flanker he was in 2021; and to the man who has graced the game in his homeland, and on the global stage for so long.
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