Australian rugby was still digesting the loss in the series at home against England 2-1 and focused on what will be the Rugby Championship, in which he will debut this Saturday, in Mendoza, against the Pumas. Nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to the preparation, the final adjustments and the desire to go out and play to change the mood with a convincing performance. Until the internal bomb explodedthe one that no one expected in the Wallabies bunker.
The wing Michael Hooper is the captain of Australia. At 30 years old, he has been in the national team for ten years and is one of the symbols of the team. Of great predicament. Logically, he had been confirmed by the New Zealand coach Dave Rennie to lead the team that will face Argentina at the Malvinas Argentinas stadium in Mendoza. Nothing foreshadowed what would happen.
Before dinner on Thursday, Hooper met with one of the members of the team’s medical staff, Dr. Sharron Flahive. She was the first to hear the news. “I’m going back to Australia. I’m not in the mood to play. Can we do the paperwork please?”, came to tell him. Flahive did not understand anything. Immediately afterwards, Hooper spoke with the coach and, together, they went to a room in the hotel where they are staying to meet with the rest of the squad.
“I’m not mentally ready to play. I will be detrimental to the team. I’m going back to Australia. I have the utmost confidence that they will be able to win the tests against Argentina without me”, he told them, words more, words less. Neither saw the decision coming. Moreover, it was highlighted, behind closed doors, the seriousness and professionalism with which Hooper performed throughout the week of preparation for the debut.
Hooper prepared a statement for the media, which was released this Friday. “Although this decision was not easy, I know it is the right one for me and the team at this time,” Hooper said. “My whole career I have sought to put the team first and I don’t feel capable of fulfilling my responsibilities at the moment with my current mindset.”
Coach Rennie spoke of Hooper’s determination, noting his “courage” by standing in front of his peers and telling them what was happening to him, when he could have hidden it. “Michael is one of the most professional and impressive men I have ever coached and I know this has been a difficult decision for him. He has shown real courage by recognizing where he is and acting accordingly. Today he has addressed the team, which has been a great courage to let them know that he is not well and that he believes that the best thing for him and for the team is for him to return home. It was an easy decision to let him back into his realm, where he will have a lot of support around him. We will support him in any way we can and I know the team will be focused on getting the job done this Saturday.”
Had he noticed any anomaly in the captain’s behavior? Rennie was categorical: “There was no sign during the week of the anguish that Hooper is experiencing. Nothing was apparent to us from how he trained, how he contributed around the team, around the leadership, which was excellent. But he’s clearly been struggling a bit and masking quite well everything that happens to him. Obviously, he’s been able to suppress things in the last couple of weeks, so we certainly weren’t aware of anything, but he’s a professional and was able to go ahead and get the job done.”
Rugby Australia Chairman Andy Marinos also spoke. “Michael is an incredible leader, it takes a brave man to identify where he is and step up while he has the best interests of the team at heart. His well-being is and remains the top priority at this time, where Rugby Australia and the sporting community will do everything they can to support him and his family.”
The Wallabies staff decided that Hooper, who was going to play his 122nd test with the national team, decided that he return to Sydney along with Dave Porecki, a teammate in the Waratahs, who will not be available for either of the two games with the Pumas due to to a blow to the head suffered in training. Instead of Hooper will act Fraser McReightwhile the pillar james slipper will be the captain.
His gaze on the pressures
Last year, Hooper took a six-month sabbatical to leave Australian rugby and play in Japan’s Top League. He then took another contractual leave and missed most of the 2021 Super Rugby season with the NSW Waratahs.
Although Hooper returned for the latter part of the 2021 Super Rugby Pasifika season and led the Wallabies with customary poise in the recent home series against England, Hooper has been outspoken in the past about the stress of professional sport, the pressure of leadership and the effects of social networks on young players.
“You try to be the best you can be and sometimes that doesn’t work. When it happens, it’s hard to deal with,” Hooper has told the media in the past. “I think it’s important, especially for young players, to be educated on how to deal with it. Players are getting a lot better at talking to each other about this topic. Without a doubt, it is something essential: How do people feel. So many things happen, you see so many things that constantly bombard you about your work, day by day, that everything becomes difficult.
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