The man who passed the Wallabies captaincy on to Michael Hooper has given a revealing insight into his former teammate’s transition into the role, and believes it may be time for the 124-Test veteran to have his playing time managed so that he arrives at next year’s World Cup in peak mental and physical condition.
Former Wallabies captain Stephen Moore is among those best placed to comment on Hooper’s sudden withdrawal from the touring squad in Argentina, a move that shocked the Australian rugby community given the 30-year-old’s performances and durability in the gold jersey.
Moore is among the very few who understand the rigours of being the national captain, the Queenslander admitting he wasn’t surprised by the news that broke on the eve of Australia’s “courageous” 41-26 victory over the Pumas in Mendoza.
“Having known Hoops and played a lot with him, I guess the load that he’s taken on, on and off the field, for a very long time, is pretty significant,” Moore told ESPN. “He’s put a lot into every time, he hasn’t had many injuries, so it’s been pretty constant for him, both at the Waratahs and also the Wallabies.
“I think the fact that he put his hand up and said he was not in the right place to be playing, that he needs a break, is certainly very courageous because we’ve all been there in those positions, and it’s not easy to put your hand up and say you need some time away from the game.
“So I think it’s courageous by him and let’s hope now he can get that time to recuperate and then get back on the field.”
Moore and Hooper traded the Wallabies captaincy between each other from 2014 to 2017, an injury to the hooker in the opening Test of 2014 seeing a then-22-year-old Hooper assume the figurative armband and become the team’s third youngest skipper of all time.
When Moore returned in 2015, then-Wallabies coach Michael Cheika again made the hooker his skipper, but Hooper remained an integral part of the Australia leadership setup as the team made it all the way to 2015 World Cup final.
And that perhaps provides the most telling insight into the workload Hooper has had to manage across a decorated Test career that has now spanned a decade, Moore revealing that Hooper was a leader within the Wallabies long before he was handed the role proper – a moment that arrived ahead of the Rugby Championship in 2017..
“I relied on him a huge amount, there’s no doubt, and other guys in the team as well,” Moore said. “And when I got injured [in 2014] and he took over, I was completely prepared for that to be it for me, just that short time, I would have certainly respected Cheik’s decision if he had decided to keep Hoops in the role, so that’s the kind of respect I’ve got for Hoops as a leader.
“But we also relied on him enormously as a player, his contribution on the field, as a captain when you’ve got players in your team who you can rely on like that, that’s a great feeling. And players like Pocock were in the same boat, when you just knew that they were going to front up and do their job really well, and that takes a lot of pressure off the whole team when you’ve got players like that.
“So there was the leadership contribution, and I would certainly use Hoops a lot and pick his brain on different things, and he made a huge contribution off the field.
“And I would never want to understate the way he’s played on the field; there’s often criticism around some of that stuff and I can just never understand it. If I think about the best players I’ve played with, he’s in that conversation, Hoops, his contribution to the Wallabies over such a long time has been absolutely massive.”
It’s understood that Hooper is feeling the physical toll of 121 games at the highest level, and that as much as anything has contributed to him not being in the right “mindset” to lead nor play for the Wallabies, and subsequently saw him fly back to Australia for a break.
There has been no timeframe put on his return, but media reports suggest he is unlikely to face the Springboks in back-to-back Tests on home soil at least, and may even sit out the rest of the Rugby Championship completely.
When- or perhaps even if he returns at all- it may be that the Wallabies need to tailor his workload as captain, Moore saying how the job gets tougher as you get older and you are pulled increasingly more directions.
“It’s always a balance and finding the time you need to concentrate on your preparation, the training and mental preparation, but also finding the time to get away from the game; to go and play a game of golf or catch up for a coffee, or meet your family for dinner, and every player has a different approach,” Moore told ESPN when asked if there were any strategies he used to navigate a Test week as captain.
“And I think it’s harder than ever now to get away from the game, we’ve just got so many different mediums where people can comment on things, give their assessment of the games. And there’s a lot of good about that but there’s also a lot of pitfalls there; there’s lot of touchpoints for people now to make comment on the games and performance and different views on this and that.
“So of course that impacts on players, you try your best to get away from it, but that stuff is also part of the landscape now and that wasn’t the case, even in my career early on, that’s stuff is all very live and relevant now.”
One idea that has been floated to help Hooper manage his workload is for a co-captain to be named, but Moore doesn’t believe that is a path the Wallabies should explore.
“I haven’t probably seen that work that well in my experience,” he said. “I think the captain’s role is very special and important, and Hoops has done a fine job and been there a long time now, so I don’t want to comment too much on what that all looks like going forward.
“But I think the best solution to that scenario is to have a really strong leadership group to support the captain, I’ve always thought that’s the best way to go, and any one of those leadership group members could be the captain on any given day, but I think you need one captain and that’s my view on it.”
Perhaps a better situation then is to have a designated stand-in captain, a role veteran prop James Slipper filled in Mendoza at the weekend.
Formalising such a situation would then allow Hooper to have his workload managed through to France next year, in what may well prove to be his Test swansong.
“I guess that’s up to Dave and the coaches to determine that, and Hoops himself, and I guess they take that view with every senior player,” Moore said of such a plan. “If you look at countries and teams around the world who’ve had those champion players that have played a lot of footy, they’re certainly pretty open-minded about how they approach that part of their careers.
“He went and had the time in Japan and by all reports he really got a lot out of that by being in a different environment and playing with different players, that definitely refreshes you. But I think we need to be open-minded about all our players and their workloads and all that sort of stuff, and to build the real depth in our team.
“If you look at the Springboks, for example, they had a good win on the weekend and I think they’ve made five changes for the second Test. So they’re in a place now where if you put those two teams together there’s not much between them really; you can’t really tell which is the best one out of the two. They’ve got that depth across key positions where they can swap half-a-dozen out and it does still look like a full-strength side.
“So that’s got to be our goal to get that kind of depth, so when you’re missing a player like Hoops it doesn’t leave an enormous gap; we’ve just got used to him being there so that when he’s not there, people get a bit spooked. But in saying that, I thought Fraser [McReight] had a strong game last week.”