Michael Hooper will make his captaincy debut against Queensland this weekend, but the NSW Waratahs are confident he’s a long-term leader.
The NSW Waratahs are so confident in Michael Hooper’s leadership ability, they considered him for the captaincy last Super Rugby season as a 21-year-old newcomer.
Hooper takes the reins from injured skipper Dave Dennis to become the 100th captain in NSW rugby history in Saturday night’s Australian Conference blockbuster against the Queensland Reds.
But it may not be long until the dynamic No.7 has the job fulltime.
NSW coach Michael Cheika approached Hooper about the captaincy before last season, even though the openside flanker had only just arrived from the Brumbies and was barely out of nappies as an international player.
The Wallabies star hasn’t led a team out onto the park since he was a 16-year-old at Manly, but the Waratahs are adamant they’ve found a natural.
“There were discussions there (last year), but Denno was the guy for the job last year and he’s done a really good job turning the team around and getting the team in line with Cheik’s mindset,” Hooper said.
“It’s definitely a role I’m pretty happy to have.
“It’s an absolute privilege to grow up in this state and be able to captain them.”
Dennis is nursing a knee injury suffered in last week’s opening win over the Western Force, meaning Hooper will be thrown in the deep end in what promises to be another fiery derby against the Reds at ANZ Stadium.
Queensland are confident their smaller and more mobile forwards can exploit the bigger Waratahs pack.
Cheika is refusing to bite back and is happily accepting underdog status, with Queensland aiming for their sixth-straight win over their historic rivals – and third in four matches at Homebush.
Separate from his leadership responsibilities, Hooper will be involved in one of the most pivotal on-field match-ups – going head-to-head with in-form Queensland ruck warrior Liam Gill.
Cheika doesn’t expect captaincy to change Hooper.
“We see Michael as a long-term leader,” he said.
“He’s still very young but at the same time he’s a leader by example. He’s also very calm and he understands the game well in the heat of the battle.
“He’s the natural pick for it. He’s got massive respect within the team.”
Despite a forecast for wet weather, the Waratahs say they won’t deviate greatly from their steadfast plan of playing expansive rugby.
Cheika says a level of focus has gone into this week’s preparations that wasn’t there this time last year.
“We need to turn it up a notch or two because it’s Queensland,” Cheika said.
“There’s a few different theories on how they’ve got the wood on us … they’re lighter, Liam Gill is better than Michael Hooper on the ground or Quade (Cooper) is better than (Bernard) Foley.
“They’re probably right at the moment. We’ve just got to prove them wrong on Saturday.”
Recalled Queensland centre Anthony Fainga’a says clashes against the Waratahs haven’t lost their edge.
“It’s one of the highlighted ones on the calendar,” Fainga’a said.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity and to start the game with the team we have is unbelievable.”