This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with bravery and an unsung hero…
The withdrawal of Michael Hooper from his team’s tour of Argentina for mental health reasons has, thankfully, almost completely been received with the empathy it deserves.
Australia have not had a leader as dependable, forthright and committed as the Waratahs openside since George Gregan; and in many ways he has had it harder. Gregan led a team that was usually settled and often at the top of the world game, Hooper has had to steer a team that has often seemed in constant flux.
He is currently on his fourth national team coach, three of whom have named or retained him as captain. He has racked up 121 caps over his decade in the team; at the age of 29 and playing in one of the game’s most physically demanding positions, that is an astonishing number.
Australia’s form over his decade in the squad – this is his seventh year of captaincy – has been patchy at best, downright awful at times, occasionally firing hope yet more often than not dashing it a fortnight later. Yet Hooper has been not only a constant on the pitch, he has been a constant in his presence and words after the games. Always an honest interview, always a genuine emotion on display, always Australia thumping in his chest.
Will Carling’s tweeted response, citing the stresses involved in leading your country and lauding Hooper for his decision to be as honest about the contents of his mind as he would be about the contents of the game he just played in, was poignant. Fans look up to these people as national leaders. We expect them to be omnipresent, flawless, indestructible. We expect them to be strategic masterminds, fearless generals, paternal carers, cold negotiators. That’s what a rugby leader needs to be to inspire a team, a nation and the next generation.
Hooper has done this for seven years. Seven years. He’s epitomised all of the above, setting the standards for his team, a team which has not always had the quality to live up to them. No break, no sabbatical, no long injury lay-off. It has to be tiring.
The comeback by Australia on Saturday night quite clearly had an emotional imprint of Australia’s players playing for their captain on it. It is fully deserved, as is the time off Hooper needs to get his head back to where he needs it to be.
Even in adversity, his honesty in taking the time he needs should be seen as inspiring, to a generation that still struggles to really understand and talk openly about mental health.
Loose Pass wishes him well, and is excited for his return, whenever it may be.
One of the best slipping under the radar
Conversations about half-backs are frequent, with the recent crop of luminaries such as Antoine Dupont and Aaron Smith, long-time servants such as Conor Murray or Faf de Klerk usually jostling for prominence through the arguments surrounding game-plan implementors, talented mavericks, decision-makers and eye-of-a-needle passer.
It has, for some time, been a mystery to Loose Pass as to why Nic White‘s name so rarely crops up in these conversations. White lasts longer on the pitch than most of his counterparts, for the simple reason he is quite clearly head-and-shoulders above anybody who might replace him. Scrum-halves run more than any other position on the pitch and duly get tired faster (so stats claim) yet it seems that even White after 70 breathless minutes in Australia’s high-tempo game is deemed more influential than anyone who might replace him on the pitch.
His passing is accurate, his kicking game more than solid. He runs well, he tackles well and he dictates Australia’s tempo superbly. He may not be the best in the world at any of those facets, but there is not a weakness. Moreover, he is so rarely playing behind a dominant pack, not something that could be said about any of the quartet mentioned above.
This World Cup will surely be his international swansong, a finale to an international career curtailed by his international experiences (another reason he is so valuable) at Montpellier and Exeter but which should be remembered as more stellar than it is currently given credit for.