Michael Hooper highlights Australia’s desire to beat England

Wallabies captain acknowledges recent ‘topsy-turvy results’ but promises no lack of motivation at Twickenham on Saturday

The Wallabies trained on Thursday under leaden skies, with bowed heads and in the blackest melancholy. Not so long ago Australia’s rugby union squad enjoyed dinner with their country’s Test cricketers in Cairns and forged bonds in shared jokes and stories. Now, with the tragic death of Phillip Hughes, they came together again in grief.

“It’s the kind of news you never want to wake up to,” admitted their 23-year-old captain, Michael Hooper. “We love our cricket. All of us were checking our phones on Thursday morning. For us as a team it’s a pretty sombre mood.”

The Wallabies will wear black armbands when they face England at Twickenham on Saturday. Wisely, though, Hooper interrupted a suggestion that Hughes’ death might be used as some sort of totem. “We’ve got enough motivation this weekend,” he said firmly. “But when we’re wearing the black armbands, we’ll be thinking of him and his family.”

Hooper, who turned 23 only last month, is already one of the world’s best openside flankers. But he is rapidly showing something more: that he is a fine leader of men. Yet he knows this remodelled Australian team is a steep work in progress. Their new coach, Michael Cheika, is barely a month into the job. Players have been blooded and switched and shuffled. And with defeats by France and Ireland already on the ledger in the autumn international series, victory over England, in what is a dress rehearsal for their Rugby World Cup group meeting next year, matters even more than usual.

“It’s crucial for us to get a result,” admitted Hooper. “We’ve had topsy-turvy results but we’re on the up so it would be disappointing to go down again this weekend. There’s been a lot of good work off the field – the training has been immaculate. There’s been dropped balls, there’s been guys getting angry, but that’s what you want. The intent every week to get on the field has been immense.”

Yet Hooper admits he expected the odd bump following Ewen McKenzie’s resignation last month and a disappointing Rugby Championship over the summer. Yet he insists progress is being made. “Nothing is ideal in this world,” he conceded. “What we’ve looked at this tour is trying to get our backyard right, to work on us, and it’s been different with a coach and new staff coming in and going straight into big games.

“But we have put some really nice things in place, like building a team structure and identity. Cheika’s had a really short time to try to get things over the line. It was a pretty hot cauldron for him to come but he’s done a job. The guys are enjoying it.”

Having a wounded English pack blasting into them might test their enjoyment but Hooper is relishing the challenge. And he says the criticism of England’s back row, following defeats by New Zealand and South Africa, is misplaced.

“They have got a good back row and a big, physical forward pack who like to dominate scrums and lineouts,” he warned. “Their No8, Ben Morgan, is a very good carrier, big guy, gets through a lot of work for their team. And Chris Robshaw is an absolute pest. Last year he had a really good performance against us around the ruck, disrupting our ball, and made it really tough for us around the breakdown.

“His work ethic is great. That’s probably the main attribute of a seven, he’s got to work and get through a heap of stuff. He does that, he’s their leader and is a big part of the team regardless.”

Yet England keep losing the big games to the southern hemisphere sides by the slimmest margins. Does that give Australia an edge? Hooper smiles. “It’s funny,” he says. “It’s welcome to our world. England had to play the Kiwis three times in a row in the summer and then face more southern hemisphere teams straight off the bat. That’s what we’re used to.

“But it’s an unfair assessment on how they’ve been playing because they’ve faced such strong teams week in week out. They’re a good side. We know they can score. We know they’ve got threats around the park.” Much like Hooper’s Wallabies, one could argue.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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