At the time, Michael Hooper said it was a night he would never forget – and not in a good sense either.
Hooper ran out for his 100th Test just over a month ago in a wild draw with the All Blacks.
His Test debut was just as crazy.
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“They were the worst conditions ever [in 2012], definitely, anywhere in the world,” Hooper said at the time.
“You wouldn’t have believed it bit it was my debut and it’s something I won’t forget.”
The then 20-year old ran out in Newcastle to a torrential downpour, playing in the final 15 minutes of what was a forgettable outing, with the rain-soaked pitch dampening what was already a disappointing night against Scotland.
“That time of my life was completely different,” a now 29-year old Hooper said.
“It’s weird your debut night. It goes so quick. It’s over in a flash.
“I was on the field for all of nine or 10 minutes, in some of the worst conditions you will ever play in. And a loss. You don’t know what to feel in that situation.”
3019 days later, he has played another 103 Tests since and is one of the most experienced Wallabies who has been challenged to lead the way in the side’s new era under Dave Rennie.
He returns to Newcastle for the first time since his debut for Saturday’s match against Argentina.
His latest task is helping the Wallabies to their first piece of silverware since 2015.
Australia head into the game with one win from two in the Tri Nations and need another victory to maintain their title.
The Wallabies dominate the head-to-head match-up with Argentina having won 17 of their last 19 against them.
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Wallabies wary Michael Cheika
“We’ve made no bones that we want to put some silverware in our closet again,” Hooper said.
“We’re clear on what we’re trying to achieve and the pressure is for us to want to be able to do that.”
It will be far from a sure thing this time around – try telling the All Blacks that after they fell victim to a huge boilover last week.
“Playing these guys before, we are fully aware of what they are capable of,” Hooper said of Argentina.
“They showed so much heart and good discipline [against New Zealand], they’ve got some really good players coming through and will be a really big threat tomorrow night.
“Argentina have been getting better every year since we started playing them.”
But Hooper cheekily suggested the former Wallabies boss – who speaks several languages – couldn’t be getting his message across particularly succinctly.
“He can speak a lot of languages, but he can’t speak Spanish that well,” Hooper said with a laugh. “So I don’t know how his communication is going. But I’m sure he’s doing a lot for that environment and that duo there work really well together.
“They’re good mates as well. I’ve played around them a lot and it will be great for professional rugby that you’re able to be on the other side now and come up against these guys. It’s good.”
The Pumas are always a passionate side, but many eagle-eyed Australian rugby fans have pointed to Pablo Matera’s “show some respect” speech in their historic win against the All Blacks as having all the hallmarks of Cheika.
That may be the case, but Hooper believes Australia’s must-win clash with Argentina on Saturday night at McDonald Jones Stadium will boil down to a little more than respect.
“I’m not too sure what [Cheika is] going to be throwing out and what the boys are going to be coming up with this week, but it’s imperative for us to focus on ourselves and what we want to deliver,” Hooper said.
“It’s Test match rugby and it’s us versus them. Who wants to play their game harder, has more belief in their game. That’s the important [part] tomorrow night.”
The fourth and final game is in Brisbane on Saturday, with both teams flying in and out on match day from Sydney due to coronavirus restrictions.
“It took us a while to get out of the hole to be fair,” Hooper said. “I know I can speak for myself that it was pretty dark, it’s still a bit dark, letting that opportunity slip and particularly the performance we put out there.
“It wasn’t up to the standard that we’ve set for ourselves.”
Australia were outplayed in all departments in Sydney with the All Blacks physically too strong and again exposing the Wallabies’ defensive wall.
Coach Dave Rennie has made a raft of changes, with Reece Hodge, usually a wing or fullback, promoted to playmaker, Tom Banks in for Dane Haylett-Petty and Tom Wright taking over from Filipo Daugunu in the backs.
Lachlan Swinton has been handed a debut at flanker, while veteran Rob Simmons has been brought in for the injured Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in a new-look pack.
“How do we prepare for this week? We’ll obviously be… rectifying some of that stuff from last week and improving,” said Hooper.
“You’ve got to take the negatives, and some of the positives, from that game and start to move forward and that is what we had to do this week.”
Australia go into the game in Brisbane — which doubles as a fixture in the Tri Nations, also including Argentina — with a solid record at Suncorp Stadium, winning six Tests there in a row.
They have also won three of their last four against New Zealand in the Queensland capital, including a 23-18 win in October 2017, the last time they met there.
Hooper insisted the scoreline in Sydney didn’t accurately reflect where the Wallabies were at.
“I feel we’re closer, absolutely,” he said.
“New Zealand played really well, and we played poorly. Like in any game in sport, that happens.
“But we are much better. If we improve our stuff and put a lot more pressure on New Zealand, that will change. I think we saw that in the first game.”
All Blacks skipper Sam Cane warned that for New Zealand “no game is a dead rubber”, but said he was wary of a wounded Wallabies team desperate to bounce back.
“They’ve always been a side that plays well with their backs against the wall, and you could say that’s where they are at the moment,” he said.
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“For me, I see it as a massive challenge for us. I look at our record at Suncorp and it’s not something we’re proud of so we’ll make sure we do everything we can to go up there and get a good win against them.”
Coach Ian Foster has made eight personnel changes to his starting XV, with four debutants in the squad, including back-rower Akira Ioane in the run-on side.
Cane said he expected the newcomers to bring “energy and excitement”.
“It’s great for them because they’ve worked out what the All Blacks are about, how we train and what’s required of them,” he said.
“Now they can just go out there, be themselves and play.”
Teammate Harry Wilson joked on Thursday it was nice to have Swinton on his side during training, while coach Dave Rennie has also talked about how the Sydney University product sometimes needed to dial his aggression back a little.
Hooper has lined up alongside Swinton for the best part of two years now for NSW and assures he’s actually a good bloke despite his angry on-field persona.
“Probably something you don’t see through the aggression on the field … is he’s a really great guy around the team, doing his thing for his teammates,” Hooper said.
“He’s very green. He’s a growing player but one with huge potential and something potentially that New Zealand haven’t seen before in a Wallaby jersey.
“Lachie has got a history of being very physical.”
Try telling Swinton, or any Wallabies player for that matter, that this fixture at Suncorp Stadium is a dead rubber.
A win will appease some sections of the Australian rugby public but the manner of the loss at ANZ Stadium made for difficult viewing, and won’t be forgotten for some time.
Even Hooper, a usually unflappable character who has been through his fair share of tough defeats in eight years of Test rugby, said the latest loss really rocked him.
“It took us a while to get out of the hole to be fair … you’re still a bit dark around letting that opportunity slip,” Hooper said.
“It’s going to be one you think about after the career, about a missed opportunity. We put a lot into that. There’s only so long you can be dark before you’ve got to move on and start thinking about how you can turn that stuff around.”
The 38-point loss was Australia’s third heaviest defeat at Test level, behind the 53-8 defeatto South Africa in 2008 and a 61-22 carve up by the Springboks in 1997.
Was that a fair reflection though of where the Wallabies are really at? Are they that bad? Hooper thinks not.
“I feel we’re closer, absolutely. No question in my mind,” Hooper said. “We haven’t been able to notch up a ‘W’ and it’s a reward that I think this team deserves for the hard work and attitude and the application they have all put in. We’re as keen as ever. We can’t wait to fly up.”
Australia will land in Brisbane on Saturday knowing very well Suncorp Stadium has been a happy hunting ground.
The Wallabies have won six straight at the venue since 2016 and lost just one of their last four outings to New Zealand at the ground.
It’s a record Cane says his team is “not proud of”, which could be of real concern to a Wallabies side desperate to salvage some pride.
“There’s no point hiding from the fact we haven’t been the sharpest there,” Cane said. “They’ve always been a side that plays well with their backs against the wall and you could say that’s where they are at the moment.”
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Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald
“The story is really brave to tell but it’s just the latest story and there hasn’t been change in sport,” Denison said.
“With all of those previous stories [of former players coming out], the floodgates haven’t opened.
“We know that there are other gay players. We definitely know in Super Rugby there are gay players. But they aren’t coming out. It’s the same in AFL, it’s the same in NRL.
“It really comes down to the fear that’s created by the language that’s being used. If you grow up from 10 years old and are hearing your teammates call people fags, queers, all those kinds of things – not necessarily maliciously – but more around denigrating anything that’s bad or weak – you have a fear attached to that.”
The answer, in Denison’s eyes, is to stop the rot at club level.
While rugby is a leader among sports in welcoming the gay community – which Denison calls the “Pocock effect” – the use of homophobic language remains.
“Rugby has been a world leader in terms of being open and being quite proactive. But I think that hasn’t translated to change at the community rugby level, where homophobic behaviour remains rife and gay kids are almost invisible because they hide their sexuality,” Denison said.
“What we need to do now is the individuals who are really running rugby clubs to read this article and understand how far we have to go because his story is the same as many that joined the Sydney Convicts or the Melbourne Chargers every year. We here these stories constantly. The challenge isn’t that people are homophobic. They just use language that’s homophobic.”
Hooper applauded Palmer’s “powerful” column which revealed the full toll of hiding his sexuality while playing for the Waratahs, Brumbies and Wallabies.
Hooper crossed paths with Palmer for two years at the Brumbies – in 2011 and 2012 – and while the Australian captain was careful when asked about the piece, he applauded Palmer’s courage.
“I feel really happy for Dan. I do know Dan. He’s a great bloke, he’s a great Wallaby, a great rugby player and now coach. I wish him all the best,” Hooper said. “It was a very powerful column.”
Pocock joined the chorus of plaudits via Twitter.
“Dan Palmer is one of the best men I got to know and play alongside in rugby. Incredibly hard working and an actual genius,” he said. “I believe sport is at its best when it’s challenging society to be more inclusive. A good reminder of how much more work there is to do.”
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Sam is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Michael Hooper has always been ahead of the game in some way or another.
At just 19 years old and a fresh graduate from St. Pius X College in Chatswood, Hooper was thrown his Super Rugby debut for the ACT Brumbies.
Six years on, he’d become the youngest player to record 100 appearances having already skippered the Waratahs to their maiden title in 2014 in place of the injured Dave Dennis.
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By then he had already written his name into Australian rugby folklore.
In 2014, Hooper (22 years and 268 days) was unveiled as Wallabies captain – the youngest since the great Ken Catchpole in 1961.
Now, eight years after running out for his first-ever Test in the green and gold, Hooper will become the youngest of 12 Australians ever to reach the century.
He would’ve been the fastest in the world to make the milestone had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic – but few people were ahead of the game on that one.
Hooper’s Test debut came in the final 15 minutes of what was a forgettable night in Newcastle, with the rain-soaked pitch dampening an already painful night against Scotland.
It’s been far from an easy path since for the now 28-year old, who has led Australia to just 19 wins from 46 Tests as skipper.
That 44.56 per cent winning strike rate is the lowest of any Wallabies captain since David Codey in 1997, who lost his sole game as skipper.
There have been questions raised over his place in the team as well as his capability to be the leader Australian rugby needs on the field.
Then there’s been the disruption off it – the Israel Folau saga and four different coaches who have each come in with their own vision of what the Wallabies will look like under their watch.
All four of them – Robbie Deans, Ewen McKenzie, Michael Cheika and now Dave Rennie – have backed Hooper to be a part of that vision and the latter three made him captain.
They’ve all seen something in him.
“Michael loves Australia and his record as a player speaks for itself but he’s exactly the type of man we want see in rugby,’ Cheika said of Hooper when he was confirmed the new Wallabies skipper in 2017.
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But what is that ‘something’ they see in him, the ‘type of man’ that Cheika spoke of.
It’s the same consistency and workhorse mentality that has defined Hooper’s reputation for so long.
While some may see the need for a new direction, Hooper is Rennie’s one constant as he pilots the Wallabies through a turbulent period and into a new era.
That same determination and single-mindedness has stayed with Hooper since his teeenage years and made him destined for the green and gold from a young age.
That is at least according to Matthew Stearn, who was Hooper’s coach during his senior years at St. Pius.
“Even back in 2008, I was interviewed in my first year at Pius by one of the reporters from the North Shore Times and back then I said to them if he wasn’t a Wallaby I didn’t know what was,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“That was back in 2008. He always looked like he was a Wallaby.
“Even as a 17-year old – the physicality he brought to the game was another level and his reading of the game was another level.
“I remember a point with Mick when he said to me: ‘How do you want me to play the game, what do you want me to do?’
“And I basically said to him: ‘Do what you’re doing because what you’re doing you can’t put a price on’.
“His natural ability in the game was next-level.”
Hooper’s scramble and try-saving tackles in defence aren’t a fluke – they’re a combination of incredible speed, an intense recovery level and an engine that has been with him since his school days.
“He had this ability to be in the right place at the right time,” Stearn said.
“He had an engine that was just unstoppable. I watch him play now and still in a Wallabies jersey I can see him running around in a Pius jersey.
“He still plays with the same enthusiasm of a schoolboy.”
Uncapped Queensland Reds trio Harry Wilson, Filipo Daugunu and Hunter Paisami are set to be unleashed in the starting side against the All Blacks on Sunday while Brumbies playmaker Noah Lolesio will come off the bench.
It comes after Rennie named a 44-man squad featuring 16 uncapped players and plenty more lacking international experience.
When Hooper was first handed the captaincy, he was the second-youngest player in the Test squad.
Now, with what is about to be 100 Tests under his belt, the Reds trio will be looking at him as skipper to lead the way.
When it came to team huddles, Hooper had always been sharp and to the point in his school days according to Stearn – his tireless work ethic was more than enough of an example to follow.
But even when he wasn’t on the field, Hooper didn’t just step away.
He understood his role, “he was the leader that the boys listened to” as Stearn explained.
“Mick got injured just before the first ISA game in year 12 and went on rehab from there.
“I took him to Queensland on the Rugby Tour and he coached the side.
“He coached the team. I was the coach but he coached them.
“They just listened to him. You notice it when he talks, you see him in the huddles. When he talks people listen. He had that same quality as a school kid and that’s pretty rare.
“His first XV, there were some loose heads in that team but they listened to Mick and they knew his value. His value as a leader was as much about how he played the game and what he put into it as what he had to say about it.”
His record at Pius speaks for itself.
From 2004-2007, he captained the school’s top sides to 36 wins, three draws and four losses.
He had 42 tries to his name from just 43 games and was named ‘best and fairest’ each year.
Even before that when he joined Pius in 2002, Hooper’s name was already being tossed around according to his junior school coach Sean Brannan.
“He was known,” Brannan said, explaining it had a lot to do with his father David, who played for Blackheath and Manly.
“His reputation had preceded him. He was already known in district circles and Manly rep teams.”
Mark Pawlak, Hooper’s coach from years seven to 10 added: “He was the only player I have coached where every opposing coach had knowledge of him,.”
When it comes to constructive feedback, Hooper’s father David is one of the only ones he knows he can genuinely listen to.
“Dave Hooper was obviously very knowledgeable in terms of rugby anyway and he was one of those parents who never interfered with the coaching process,” Stearn said.
“But he would have given Mick more feedback than anyone when he was growing up. Logical statistics to prove to Mick what he was doing right and what he could improve.”
Brannan had already been introduced to Michael’s brother Richard but was soon warned that this next Hooper coming through was even better.
He was so good that Brannan would have to apologise to opposition coaches during games.
“It was just his determination, speed, strength and single-mindedness,” he said.
Brannan described Hooper as the “natural leader that held that team together” as he captained the 11As to an undefeated season.
Like fellow classmate and future Wallaby, Luke Jones, both Brannan and Stearn knew Hooper was destined for greatness on the rugby field.
They didn’t need to remind him either.
That’s not to say Hooper lacked humility – he was as unassuming as they come, quick to deflect attention onto his teammates.
“He was unfazed, unfussed and concentrated on what was important and let his rugby speak for himself on the field,” Brannan said.
“He didn’t go around telling you how good he was, he just showed you how good he was.”
Rather, it was the single-mindedness that Brannan spoke about that had Hooper always looking at his life beyond the halls of Pius.
“Comparing him to players around him… he always had a mature focus,” Brannan said.
“He knew what to prioritise and how to get the most out of himself. He also looked at the big picture.
“I could point to the fact he didn’t make the Australian Schoolboys in year 11.
“He didn’t lose his bundle and came back the next year and I think he injured his shoulder and the doctor said you can put off this operation and get the treatment you need and go away and try make the Australian schoolboys.
“His attitude was ‘No, I need the operation. Australian schoolboys isn’t important. I want to be a Wallaby’.
“He always had the big picture. That maturity and single-minded determination were what struck you about him.”
Hooper still remained grounded though.
Since he was 16, he’s always received a message from the same person before every match he’s played.
“I know his mum was always a big supporter of his,” Brannan said.
“Even when he made rep teams, Super teams and Australian teams, she’d send him a bit of inspiration prior to big games.
“A text message or recording to help him concentrate. When he made the Wallabies she stopped doing it and he said: ‘Mum, why’d you stop doing it?’
‘She said: ‘You’ve made the Wallabies now I can’t help you as much.’
“But he was always of the opinion: ‘That’s what got me there I don’t want to think I’m any better than I was before’.
“He wasn’t above anyone or thinking he was better than anyone. He was always happy for anyone to support him any way they could. He didn’t forget people who helped him along the way.”
When Hooper takes to the field for his 100th Test on Sunday, he leads out a Wallabies side heading into a fascinating new era under Rennie.
But as the new coach said when he stood by his 99-Test Wallaby: “We’re planning on going in a new direction, but it doesn’t mean you need to change the furniture totally.”
Hooper has always been a key part of that furniture – a mainstay as the spotlight has been increasingly pointed directly at his leadership in an underperforming Wallabies outfit.
As a then 20-year old ran out for his first Test in the torrential Newcastle rain, he would have never known the path he would have to take to reach the point he is at now.
“There wouldn’t be many blokes who’d have to deal with the coach leaving, your Izzy Folau affair and a team that wants to perform better and is struggling to find his identity,” Stearn said.
“Now he’s changed coaches.”
Through all of that, as Stearn continued, “Mick’s the choice.”
“He’s gone through three coaches now and he’s still captain. That speaks volumes for Michael really.
“I do hold him in hugely high regard. I find what he’s done has pretty special really through a tough time for Australian rugby.”
The Bulldogs will ramp up their pursuit of Burton as of November 1 when they can officially get the Panthers young gun to sign a contract for 2022.
Then it will be up to the Panthers whether they decide to release the Dubbo product one year early.
The Flanagan deal is expected to get rubber-stamped in the next 24 hours. Add Addo-Carr and Burton and all of a sudden the roster goes from below average to a decent side.
WILL NADEN ACTUALLY PLAY, OR BE LEFT RIGHT OUT?
GRAND Finalists Penrith are throwing plenty of berley in the water around whether centre Brent Naden will play in the NRL decider.
One line being pushed is he’s been training on the Panthers right edge and is a lock to run out.
The other line is the Panthers wouldn’t have run Tryone May in a preliminary final unless they were planning on rolling the same way in the grand final.
We’re tipping Naden – who’s been superb scoring 12 tries in 17 NRL appearances this season – will be the unlucky Panther who misses out on Sunday.
ULTIMATE INSULT IN SUAALII CHASE
THE Sydney Roosters have somehow emerged as the most likely home for the hottest teenager in Australian sport, Joseph Suaalii.
If – and given all the backflips, cartwheels and pirouettes we’ve seen from the kid already it’s a mighty big I-F – Suaalii opts to remain in rugby league then the Chooks have put themselves in the box seat to win his signature.
The alternative is he’ll take the money on offer from Rugby Australia and play for the Wallabies.
You’ve got to hand it to Sydney Roosters kingpin Nick Politis. There’s simply no better deal-maker in the business. Sonny Bill Williams, Cooper Cronk, Freddy Fittler, Gus.
If Uncle Nick lands Suaalii from under arch rivals South Sydney’s guard there’s no argument it is some of his absolute best work.
GOWER BARGES INTO NRL EXEC BOX
NRL executives could have been forgiven for looking for the exits when premiership-winning Panthers captain Craig Gower bowled into their box after Penrith qualified for the grand final.
Gower, one of rugby league’s most loveable rogues, had parlayed an afternoon at Randwick racecourse for The Everest into ANZ Stadium to watch the Panthers qualify for their first grand final since he led them to the title in 2003.
The champion halfback quickly made a beeline for ARLC chairman Peter V’Landy’s and CEO Andrew Abdo, causing some executive types who are unfamiliar with Gower’s charm to get more than a little nervous.
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“I just wanted to personally thank them both for fighting so hard for the game and getting the season back up and running,” Gower said.
V’landys added: “It was very much appreciated Craig making the effort to come in and say what he said.”
V’landys currently has a senior counsel conducting an independent investigation on whether Gower should be awarded the 2003 Dally M Medal.
The Panthers halfback was set to claim the gong only for the Rugby League Players Association to threaten strike action if the players collective bargaining agreement demands were not met.
The NRL promptly cancelled the awards night and Gower was robbed of the NRL’s most prestigious individual honour.
JACK JOHNS’ HILARIOUS PRANK ON MATTY
IN proof the apple never falls from the tree, Jack Johns got the better of his old man the face of Fox League Matty with a genius prank last weekend.
Matthew is known to be a fan of a cool drink on a hot day and so arrived home slightly weary after a long afternoon.
A capacity crowd of roughly 47,000 vociferous All Blacks fans will cram into Eden Park and play their role in putting the Wallabies off their game as much as possible.
Hooper said he was excited about playing in front of a packed house, even if Australian teams have felt awfully lonely when coming from the field in Auckland.
However, the good vibes from Australia have certainly reached the Wallabies on the other side of the Tasman after last week’s result. While the draw in Wellington wasn’t a win, perhaps more importantly, it wasn’t the loss many had forecast.
The sense of occasion is not lost on Hooper.
“We’ve been so appreciative of all the fans and the support we’ve had throughout the past couple of weeks in the lead up to this, from inside RA – the belief there – and all the way through our fans and the public,” Hooper said. “We’re feeling it. It’s been exceptional. Even though we’re outnumbered in the stadium because we can’t have any Aussies flying over, we’re feeling the love, that’s for sure.
“We’re looking forward to some arvo footy again which was so well-received last week.”
Asked if the Eden Park fixture was his favourite of the year, Hooper offered this: “It’s pretty special to play any Test. The Kiwis have been the benchmark for so long. They’re an outstanding team and we get the challenge to play them at their home. I’m pretty amped for it, I’m not going to lie.”
The Wallabies have identified the lineout and attacking breakdown as key areas to work on if they’re to cut down an under pressure All Blacks outfit.
“We turned over a bit of ball at the breakdown, particularly when we went into their zone,” Hooper said. “We want to hold onto the ball more, be able to recycle and get it to our players who can make some serious dents and make some serious plays. It’s going to be an up in physicality. Everyone is going to go up a level.”
All Blacks skipper Sam Cane said his side needed to deliver after coming under fire from fans at home during the week.
“We know where we stand after last week and we know where we need to better,” Cane said. “We can make some real shifts in our carry and cleanout work. We can get off the line a bit quicker and belt them there too.
“That’s Test match footy in a nutshell; physicality and intensity, and that’s where we have to deliver.”
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Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald