Some risk, but plenty of reward in Michael Hooper’s Japanese move

Rugby

There is no-one more deserving of a salary-boosting six-month stint in Japanese rugby than Michael Hooper.

The incumbent Wallabies captain has, for more than a decade, thrown himself into breakdown after breakdown, defensive line after defensive line, with little regard for his body.

He has won countless key turnovers and scored the odd crucial try across his 99-Test career, including a memorable bouncing effort that brought the Wallabies back into their World Cup opener against Fiji last year.

His work in negotiating the pay cuts that saw Australian rugby players agree to giving up an average 60 percent of their salaries earlier this year, a figure that was readjusted when Super Rugby AU was greenlit, was also hugely important.

Wallabies captain since the last World Cup, Hooper had not previously served on the Rugby Union Players Association board until this season; though there is little doubt his playing cohort are glad he did agree to join at the start of 2020, given what we know has transpired since.

And even before we learned to use the word “unprecedented” like never before, there was Hooper piloting a divided Wallabies playing group through an “unprecedented” social storm created by former Test fullback Israel Folau.

To say that Hooper has crammed a bit in throughout his eight years at the top level is an understatement and he deserves the Yen that will come his way at Toyota Verblitz next season; it is reward for 10 years of loyal service to Australian rugby.

And it is only for a maximum of six months, as he reinforced on Thursday.

“This is a good opportunity for me to broaden [my rugby] and be exposed to a different environment, an environment that’s not an extremely long time – it’s not a three or four-year deal – it really is six months or less, to be around some guys who have seen some pretty cool stuff in the rugby world,” Hooper said.

Those guys include dual World Cup winners Steve Hansen and Kieran Read.

But there are also risks for Hooper that come with this decision, too.

At the top of the list is the fact that the door will open just that little bit further to the chasing pack of fine young No. 7s behind him in Australia, headlined by impressive Reds duo Liam Wright and Fraser McReight, despite the fact Hooper will likely be back for whatever Test rugby is played next year.

Reds skipper Wright has already had a small taste of Test rugby, while former Australia Under 20s captain McReight has looked every inch a Wallabies back-rower of the future, firstly off the bench in Super Rugby earlier this year and then alongside Wright in the run-on side during Super Rugby AU.

With 14 turnovers in Super Rugby AU, McReight has proven himself as the new breakdown master in Australian rugby. The 21-year-old has five more steals than Wright and six more than Hooper. He has announced himself on the scene just as David Pocock did for George Smith and Hooper did for Pocock.

They say time waits for no-one and that is absolutely the case when it comes to openside flankers in Australia. The list of players to wear the No. 7 jersey this century, Hooper included, speaks for itself.

The Japanese Top League is now, to Hooper’s advantage, a far tougher competition than what it was in the middle part of the last decade. Samu Kerevi, Brodie Retallick, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock and Will Genia all played in Japan’s most recent Top League season, and that is only a smattering of the Test talent choosing either to break up — or finish – their professional careers in Japan.

“He’s walking into a really competitive rugby environment,” Waratahs boss Rob Penney, who coached in Japan for six years, said of Hooper’s move.

“Japan rugby’s really, really improved, even from the six years that I was up there; it really was the top four or five on occasions were streets ahead of everyone else, but you’d have to say that that’s stretched to the top eight or nine now and on their day some of the 10, 11, 12 [ranked teams] can really be a challenge.

“There are a lot of quality foreigners up there; basically South Africa has tipped their country upside down and ended up in Japan with their rugby, there are so many South Africans up there now…the rugby is of really good quality.”

It is also unclear at this point just what Super Rugby will look like next year, with the ongoing COVID-19 situation in both Australia and New Zealand making the odds of a trans-Tasman competition lengthen by the day.

But while Wallabies coach Dave Rennie will no doubt be keeping a close eye on Hooper in Japan, and may yet return him to the Test captaincy he has held for four years, there is no doubt that he will be just that little bit out of mind through the first half of next year.

And that may be all that McReight or Wright need to stake a genuine claim for the gold No. 7 jersey, setting up an enthralling positional battle in the run to France 2023 in the process.

That can only be a good thing for Australian rugby. Just as a more rugby worldly and mentally refreshed Michael Hooper will be, too.

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