Wallabies captain Michael Hooper is among the best players on the field every week, regardless of result or opposition . But his efforts have been rendered futile by the consistent faltering of the 14 other men around him in recent years, writes Oliver Keohane
Sport is the most wonderful of things in the stories, occasions and opportunities that it allows for, but it can be so cruel to its own, who aren’t lucky enough to play in the right context.
Michael Hooper’s context is the unfortunate one of a brilliant rugby player born into an awful era of Australian rugby. Playing for and captaining any other top side in the last ten years, Hooper’s name would have a lot more glory attached to it. Unfortunately, Hooper’s name implies more guts than it does glory.
It would be hard to find a game, in Hooper’s 110 Tests that, in which he has played badly. Transcending his talent is a work rate unmatched by many in world rugby and a physical toughness attributed to only a select few who have been to the dark places that an openside flanker of over 100 Tests can go. But the mental toughness to repeatedly go there to no avail is truly something special.
Hooper has won 51 matches and lost 52 in a Wallabies jersey since debuting in 2012, and it speaks to the indifference of an Australian side that for the last ten years has not lacked for talent, but lacked considerably in intent. There have been some special players to run on alongside Hooper, but there is yet to be a formidable side to complement his service to the Wallabies jersey.
Australia will always have the talent to turn it on for a series or a big game, and it’s more natural intuition than institutional structure that has seen them maintain an okay standing in World Rugby in recent years. Hooper was not a player meant for a culture of mediocrity though, and there is something so wrong about having to watch him, after every Bledisloe beating suffered at the hands of the All Blacks, talk about the “positives” and commend “the efforts of the boys”. It is very rare that you see an Australian effort equal to Hooper’s weekly endeavours.
In 28 games against the All Blacks, Michael Hooper has won four and drawn three. It’s a sad statistic to read for a player who just as easily could have been on the side with 21 wins had he been born in New Zealand’s north or south island and not Sydney. Again, Hooper’s ability to play his heart out every time these two sides face each other, and encourage his team to improve and come back the next week speaks to a very special player.
Equally underwhelming is five wins and and two draws in 14 Tests against the Springboks. Again, this speaks less to Hooper’s qualities and more to the decline in Australian rugby over the last decade.
Though the Wallabies are not bad enough to be compared to Italy, there is something of Hooper’s situation reminiscent to that of the great Sergio Parisse. I say great because he truly was, and playing behind an All Black, Springbok, English or older Australian pack, Parisse would probably have been considered among the best Number 8 to have every played the game. Unfortunately, he was on the losing side in 106 of his 142 Italian Test caps, and captain for many of those games. That is a 25% win ratio for one the most talented forwards to have taken to a rugby field in the modern era.
Richie McCaw is widely regarded as the greatest player to have played the game, and I am of the group that shares this opinion. He won 131 of his 148 Test matches and lost only 15, retiring with a win ratio of 89%. It is an astounding achievement but it was also possible because of and not in spite of the management, players and culture around him for 15 years.
Michael Hooper’s efforts, every week, are largely in spite of a culture of apathy that has characterised Australian rugby for a while, and his drive and toughness stand in stark contrast to the timid performances of the players around him. In any other top team, Michael Hooper would have won many more Tests than he has lost, but as it stands he is on the wrong side of a 50/50 ratio that speaks to a systemic problem in Australia and does an injustice to the qualities of one of the best flankers in the world in in the last decade.