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Michael Hooper takes first steps as sevens rookie with eye on Olympics
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Michael Hooper takes first steps as sevens rookie with eye on Olympics

Lungs burning and lips bleeding, Michael Hooper looked as if he’d endured 80 minutes of mayhem not 127 seconds of gametime. But after a fast and furious debut at the Hong Kong World Series event on Saturday, the Wallabies legend’s second coming as a rugby sevens rookie is at long last under way.

Typically, Hooper delivered from the get-go with a spectacular cameo against Fiji sealing a 12-0 win. Within seconds of taking the field, the 32-year-old crashed back-to-back tackles, then gave away a penalty in his first hit-up, before forcing a crucial turnover with a trademark pilfer at the breakdown.

“I was bloody nervous … it was a bit of a blur, really,” the 32-year-old admitted afterward. “On the sidelines, it just felt completely new: the whole draw out of the day, and the fans already going nuts. I have not started on the bench much, so to come on with the game in the balance was tough.”

But Hooper is nothing if not tough. In a stormy decade for Australian rugby, he was the battered face and indomitable heart of Wallabies sides for 125 Tests. So when Eddie Jones axed the veteran flanker from his 2023 World Cup squad claiming Hooper was “not the right role model”, there was an outcry.

After 11 years cheering his heroics in losing sides, fans were angry at seeing the captain cut so cruelly. Angrier still when the leaderless young Wallabies crashed, burned and bombed out in the pool stages. Even Rugby Australia CEO Phil Waugh decried Jones’s appraisal of Hooper as “absolutely unfair”.

Perhaps the fiercest defence of Hooper came from the man now mentoring him, Australia’s sevens coach John Manenti. “His reputation, if nothing else, has been exactly that – a good role model, a good work ethic, a good training ethic. He is uncompromising around his standards and his beliefs.”

Since announcing Hooper’s transition to sevens in the quest for a berth at the 2024 Paris Olympics, Manenti has been patient with his illustrious recruit, nursing him back from calf and Achilles injuries, slowly acclimatising him to the peculiar frenzies of sevens rugby and its repeat high-speed efforts.

As he rehabbed his niggles, Hooper worked hard to drop weight and gain speed. “You’re not playing 130-150 kilo blokes, you’re playing guys that can run 10 metres a second,” Hooper acknowledges. “So we’ve got to change my body to fit that mould. Not having to carry as much bulk is going to be good.”

Michael HooperView image in fullscreen

In the lead-up to Hooper’s Hong Kong debut, Manenti praised the elder statesman’s humility. “He openly admits he has to learn the game [and] has to get conditioned. But we know he’s hard on the ball, we know he has a big engine and we know he’s pretty tough. They’re not bad assets to have.”

But sevens is a fast and unpredictable game. Just hours after his Fiji cameo, Australia played France and Hooper again ran on late to help protect a 14-5 lead. Charging to the line, he was tackled short and turned the ball over, sparking Les Bleus to hit back and score two late tries to snatch a 19-14 win. Hooper remained on the bench in Australia’s 24-7 semi final loss to New Zealand, the defending Hong Kong champions.

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Springboks winger Bryan Habana was also 32 when he switched to sevens to play the 2016 Olympics in Rio and believes Hooper can do what few players can and make the jump from 15s to sevens. “Hoops has one of the most incredible work rates I’ve seen from anyone over the past 15 or 20 years,” he told South China Morning Post. “His leadership qualities, ability to communicate with teammates and officials, and what he has achieved on the biggest stages, stand him in very good stead.

“I played against him a number of times, and was gutted he did not make the World Cup squad. I think a player of his ability would have been integral to Australia achieving a different outcome. I am extremely excited about his ability to have an impact. He is really well suited to the transition.”

Hooper had played just one sevens tournament, the 2009 Kiama Sevens, before this weekend’s debut. “I have a wealth of games under my belt, so I am trying to lean into that, but I am completely new at this,” he says. “I am trying to find out where I can impact the game, and will take it step-by-step.”

Yet having captained the Wallabies in 69 Tests, Hooper’s leadership skills may be his X-factor if he wants to achieve his Olympic dream and face off in Paris against superstar France captain Antoine Dupont, who has also switched to sevens and skipped the Six Nations to prepare for the Games.

“His leadership, his professionalism, are going to have a great impact on the lads,” Manenti reckons. “As soon as he comes in, the impact and energy around the boys goes up.” Current captain Nick Malouf echoes his coach. “Hoops is someone who I, and a lot of Australian rugby players, have looked up to for a long time. To have him in the dressing room is a real bonus. He’s someone we can lean on.”

Source: theguardian.com