Michael Hooper a pragmatic choice as Wallabies captain in uncertain times
After much speculation about who would land the all important role of Wallabies captain, new coach Dave Rennie re-appointed the incumbent Michael Hooper, a duty the flanker has performed regularly for the last three years.
An incoming coach will often change the captain to assert his authority, but Rennie has opted for the status quo, at least for now.
Hooper was strongly associated with former coach Michael Cheika and the ball-in-hand style of game the pair advocated at Super Rugby and Test level. He was also captain of the Australian team that dropped to seventh in the world, the Wallabies’ lowest ever international ranking.
In a way it was a missed opportunity for Rennie to send a strong signal that the Wallabies would move in a different direction under his tutelage. But what choice did he really have?
There was a distinct lack of genuine alternatives for the Wallabies captaincy. None of the captains of Australia’s five Super Rugby teams – Allan Alaalatoa (Brumbies), Dane Haylett-Petty (Melbourne Rebels), Ian Prior (Western Force) Rob Simmons (NSW Waratahs) and Liam Wright (Queensland Reds) – had compelling arguments to be named ahead of Hooper.
None of those players, with the possible exception of Haylett-Petty, are guaranteed run-on spots for the Wallabies, while, along with the rest of his Force teammates, Prior did not even make the 44-man national squad.
It was strange to see Hooper playing for the Waratahs without the captaincy this year, but there was never any suggestion that it would impede his chances of retaining the Wallabies job, if he were the best man for it.
There was no serious challenge to Hooper’s captaincy, but Rennie did have other leadership options such as co-captains, a system he has operated in previous teams, and even an off-field captain to drive team culture.
But in the end Rennie stuck with Hooper. He said the appointment was a “straight-forward decision,” but it took the coach nine months to endorse him.
When Rennie was appointed as the national team coach he said Australia needed to change the way they played, particularly in relation to tactical kicking, an important facet of the game which was not given a high priority by Cheika.
Significantly, Hooper recently conceded the Wallabies needed to make changes to the way they played. Perhaps it was Hooper’s distancing himself from the past that convinced Rennie he was open to new ideas and playing a different way.
Or maybe Rennie always intended to name Hooper captain and wanted to keep it a secret until the Wallabies went into camp in the Hunter Valley to prepare for the first Bledisloe Cup Test against the All Blacks.
Hooper’s appointment as captain will almost certainly assure his selection at openside flanker, which was looking likely anyway.
When Hooper was one of a select few players Rugby Australia offered a sabbatical overseas to recoup lost earnings because of pay-cuts brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, it was pretty clear he would be a required player for the Wallabies, although not necessarily captain.
The presence of Hooper at openside flanker may influence the size and shape of the rest of the Wallabies’ back-row.
No one can doubt Hooper’s work ethic and passion, and while he is a mobile back-rower, he is relatively light for a loose-forward at Test level, which means Rennie will need to give a lot of thought to how he balances the back-row.
The Wallabies went with two openside flankers – the celebrated “Pooper” combination of David Pocock and Hooper – during the Cheika era, but at the World Cup in Japan last year Australia’s back-row was not as effective as the big, powerful loose trios of world champions South Africa and finalists England.
Still, the Wallabies will need speed and skill in the back-row if they are to compete at the breakdown and in support play with the All Blacks, who are a different beast again.
With experienced back-rowers Isi Naisarani and Jack Dempsey controversially omitted from the 44-man squad, Rennie is likely to choose between rookie Harry Wilson and veteran Pete Samu for No 8 and Lachie Swinton and Rob Valetini for blindside flanker.
Rennie is looking to introduce members of Australia’s world championship-winning Under-20s team to the Test arena, which means Hooper’s 99-cap experience will be potentially invaluable leading a young team.
Hooper’s appointment is only for this year’s international season. He will turn 29 years of age next month, which means he will still be young enough to lead the Wallabies to the 2023 World Cup in France.
There is a lot of rugby to be played between now and then. Maybe Rennie sees Hooper as the long-term Wallabies captain or perhaps he will develop one of the young guns to take over before the next World Cup.
Meanwhile, Hooper’s familiar face may be reassuring for the Wallabies and their fans, a pragmatic choice as leader in uncertain times.