‘History is there to be broken’: Hooper on Eddie, snubs and risks of Wallabies’ youth push

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After being a shock omission from the Rugby World Cup squad, former Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has been announced as a new member of the Stan Sport commentary team. He speaks with Iain Payten about the injury that led to him missing selection, how he was told he wasn’t going and how he sees Eddie Jones’ youthful squad faring at the Rugby World Cup.

IP: Michael, let’s start by asking if you can clarify what exactly happened with your calf injury, and why it was deemed you weren’t fit enough to take the World Cup?

MH: So, start at the World Cup and I will work back. I was going to be right for the first game against Georgia. I would have been 100 per cent fine. Working back from that, I was keen to try and make that French game (on August 27) but obviously not making the squad, there was no point. I am training fully now. I have been doing extensive conditioning stuff.

I had a little nick before the South Africa game (on July 8) but played the full game fine. I didn’t think it was anything. I have had feelings in my calf in years before and they never eventuated into anything.

Then I pulled what we thought was a grade one (calf muscle tear) in Manly (ahead of the Argentina clash), and then re-tweaked in the first Bledisloe week (July 29). Then when we re-scanned it we realised it was a bit of a different thing than originally thought. But it was worth the push to try and make that Bledisloe. No regrets on how we treated it.

Michael Hooper was a shock omission from the Wallabies’ squad for the Rugby World Cup.Credit: Getty

What were the conversations like in that period? Eddie Jones identified uncertainty around the calf injury as a main reason you didn’t get picked. Were you always confident you’d be right and were you stressing that to him? Or do you think he just decided to go a different way anyway?

It is as simple as I think if I didn’t get injured I think I would be there. I just couldn’t plead my case, on the field and at training, when I was injured.

I know the team was training a certain way and I was only exposed to two-three weeks of it, and then I didn’t train with the team since after that. That’s where the question marks around the fitness came up.

Was it still a shock, though, to hear you weren’t going? How did it feel?

I was disappointed. I wanted to be there, I want to be there. So you go through the whole stage of grieving. Disappointed and frustrated, and then you get a bit of love from the public and then you have a bit of a lull period. I had this massive goal and was working towards it, so you feel a bit flat. Then you kick out of it and opportunities like this (Stan commentary) pop up, and sevens is an opportunity there, and also just getting my calf right in the event where an injury occurs and there may be a need to respond.

James Slipper, Eddie Jones and Michael Hooper front the press tin South Africa in July. It was Hooper’s last Test.Credit: Getty

Are you still in contact with Eddie, since they went into full World Cup mode?

There has been communication between the staff and players, like myself. They have a job to do. I don’t expect anything from them. I feel quite a way out of it now. There are so many meetings and training sessions I have missed. My communication with them is brief, checking in on how things are going. I am excited to see them play.

How is your relationship with Eddie? Can you enlighten us further about how you found about your non-selection, because there is speculation you didn’t get told straight off the bat, and there was confusion at your end about where things sat?

There’s been a bit made about this, and honestly, I was treated the same way as everyone else. Which should be the case. I am no more or less important than any player omitted from the squad. Yes, I have been around for a while and played a lot of Tests and had a couple of World Cups, and this was going to be my send-off. But it is just as upsetting for a guy who could have been going to his first World Cup.

MIchael Hooper pictured at the Wallabies’ jersey launch for the Rugby World Cup in June.Credit: Steven Siewert

In terms of the way it all played out, a fair bit has been made of it, but it is a tricky situation to manage well, in fairness.

With the amount of injury that was floating around and the amount of uncertainty around what a squad make-up would look like, so … a nice lunch at Hugos and to be let down over a bottle of wine would be lovely, but that’s not the way it goes. A phone call ends up being it, and that’s what it is.

You and Eddie spoke that day?

Yep. We did.

Eddie Jones has quite deliberately picked a young squad, and senior guys like yourself and Jed Holloway didn’t make it, and other guys with lots of Test caps. With your pundit hat on, is that a risky strategy, given history tells us you need experience and generally be older, to be successful? Is this a roll of the dice?

Of course. It is. But with my Australian hat on, history is there to be broken. It happened at the last World Cup, no team had lost a game (and then won the title) and South Africa did that. So history is there to be broken. In terms of a strategy, picking an old team is a risky strategy too. You get guys who drop early, do they have the kilometres in the legs? Potentially not. So you can find risk in anything. What Eddie has done is pick a team that has no baggage, and a team that is champing at the bit to get out there and have the ks in the legs to attack the gameplan they want to play.

I am keen to see how it goes. The Wallabies are coming from a place, well, they haven’t had a test like they’ve had this season. As the old adage goes, the last thing to come is the wins. They have put in a lot of work now so hopefully the fruits of the team’s labour start to pay off.

A lot of Wallabies fans have absolutely no idea how this World Cup is going to pan out. From your time as being a part of the squad there for a while, can you give Wallabies fans any sort of insight into how it will unfold?

We, the Wallabies team, have plentiful athletes in each position. Really athletically strong, trained really hard to this point in time. So, when the game comes together, which we have seen in patches, it has been really nice to watch and affected some of the top teams. The key is sustaining that pressure on the opposition for longer. And that’s where the argument around having experience in the team comes into question; can you stick at it when the other team is doing the same thing?

The old Mike Tyson ‘everyone has a plan until you’re punched in the mouth’, that is a type of environment the World Cup is going to bring for every team. Not just the Wallabies.

Michael Hooper has joined the Stan commentary team for the Rugby World Cup.

People have views on which World Cup pools are easier and harder than others, but August upturned the apple cart a bit with some results like Fiji beating England. What’s your take on Australia’s pool?

I don’t like that the Wallabies have been touted as having an easy pool. I don’t think that’s the case.

There is no easy pool, and there are no easy games. Georgia bring set-piece strength and a lot of their guys play in Europe.

Fiji, everyone knows the dangers of Fiji and Wales have been a real rock and a tricky game for us in the past two World Cups. Then you have to get through Portugal unscathed. There are challenges at every turn. Everyone is trying to do the maths on how it will turn out, but only time will tell.

Quickly on your move to sevens, what appeals to you about staying in Australia and diving into what is a pretty torturous world?

There seems to be a common emoji that people are sending me when they hear the news. The vomit one! I am going into a world here of young 20-year-olds who can just run and run, and are like whippets.

I am viewing it as ‘what a great opportunity’, I will change my body composition as an athlete, maybe losing a few kegs, and dive into a new challenge. So there is an element of intrigue and excitement around it all. There is a great carrot in the Olympics and on a personal level, changing my story a bit is exciting and challenging myself in a new area. I have been doing the same thing for a long time, so it’s a new schedule and a chance to learn new things, and perhaps bring something from my career to the squad. It’ll be exciting.

Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match ad-free, live and on demand in 4K UHD from September 9.

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