It was less than a month ago outgoing Wallabies coach Eddie Jones questioned Michael Hooper’s worth to the national side and his leadership capabilities.
On Tuesday morning, Australian men’s sevens coach John Manenti got all the evidence he needed to know that Hooper would help drive their Olympic campaign forward.
Training alongside experienced backs Maurice Longbottom, Henry Hutchison, Matt Gonzalez and Josh Turner at Centennial Park, Hooper took the pads and poles out onto the fields at 8am and got to work. Then he got to work and the standards immediately rose.
“He did some work yesterday with the rehab group and the quality of the session was excellent, I didn’t have to say a word,” Manenti told The Roar.
“From the first minute of training, the boys were on. They were wanting to impress and show how good they are.
“He’s the first to admit he’s got a lot to learn about the game and the speed and conditioning and repeat side of it. But we think he can offer the group a lot around training and, hopefully, tournaments.”
It was only when the City Rangers came and kicked the Australian men’s team off the field because of a mix-up with the bookings that the session came to a halt.
Up until then, Hooper had impressed his coach and his teammates.
“Having a player like that in the squad, he’s someone you look up to,” livewire playmaker Gonzalez said.
“He’s a competitor. He’ll bring that to training. He’s been at a different level. Everyone wants to impress.”
The switch had been on the cards for more than 12 months, with Hooper all year expressing his openness to giving the game a crack after moving to the end of his five-year deal with the Wallabies.
Manenti had thought Hooper would only become available early next year, with the long-time sevens mentor thinking the Wallabies’ most-capped captain would feature at his third World Cup.
Instead, he was controversially left behind and Jones, who sensationally walked away from the Wallabies head coaching job late last month, left many baffled when he grouped Hooper alongside fellow excluded playmakers Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper by saying the trio weren’t “the right role models for the group going forward”.
Manenti disagreed and said the group had welcomed and responded well to his unveiling.
“I think he’s a good leader, he’s a good strong leader,” Manenti said.
“He won’t be a captain here, but he’ll be a leader and his knowledge of professional footy and big game pressure will be a great asset to us. I don’t agree with some of the negativity that Eddie had to say.
“As a player who has got a reputation of being uncompromising and ruthless on the field, he’s a real leader. Every time he trains, the group goes up about 5-10 per cent.”
Hooper has a task ahead of him to earn selection.
No longer is he the young 20-year-old fresh out of school like many of his new teammates, but his level-head, calmness under pressure, skill set and experience is something that Manenti wants to tap into.
But he will have to work for it.
“Everything you do in sevens is highlighted,” Manenti said. “Your breakdown is policed so much harder because it’s two guys going at it. You don’t have six bodies lying on it. If you’re off your feet or your hands are on the ground, you’re pinned.
“Even some of the stuff we’ve done with him so far, that’s going to get penalised because your hands are on the ground and that’s red alert in sevens. It takes time.
What bodes well for Hooper is he has given himself time to make the transition, with the 125-Test stalwart an outside chance to line up in Perth for what is the third stage of the rejigged World Series Sevens tournament.
“The big thing is you can’t rush it,” Manenti said.
“Even at the Comm Games, we only got Mark [Nawaqanitawase] in lastminute.com. He was brilliant, offloading, great in the air, but he didn’t understand how we played until the end, so I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to give them time to understand the difference in the games and the space. That’s the hardest thing.
“Hoops will have to defend 15-20 metres with one guy in front of him and he’s got to understand how to do that. That might have happened once or twice in his career, but that will happen every game where he’s on the edge and space aplenty.”
That space was on show on Thursday morning at Centennial Park, as young whippet James McGregor showed he’s a player to watch going forward, while fellow exciting teenager Aden Ekanayake opened up out wide.
The former openside flanker isn’t the only XVs player Manenti is looking at, with hopes Brumbies speedster Corey Toole and Rebels recruit Darby Lancaster will be available to feature later in the season to press their own Olympic claims.
With Les Bleus captain Antoine Dupont expected to withdraw from the Six Nations and backend of the French Top 14 competition to give himself the best chance of starring at the Paris Olympics, Manenti believes it’s essential to add some quality from Super Rugby.
“When David Beckham goes from Man U to Real Madrid, someone’s going to miss out. Someone will miss out for Dupont,” Manenti said.
“We’re trying to be the best for the best.
“Someone said to me, ‘What about all the young blokes in your pathways?’ Well, they’ve got to fight for their positions. We’re not gifting anything, we’re trying to be the best in the world.
“Anytime I can get access to people in the top echelon is gold. There’s no free tickets and Hoops is no different. He’s got to pick himself on performance.”
Gonzalez, who has been a constant in the sevens side for the past few seasons and competed with Longbottom for selection, welcomed the added pressure.
“I’d say we’re excited,” he said.
“It’s a competition. Every tournament is a competition. No one’s spot is secure. Injuries happen as well. It’s a part of sport. You’re always competing for your spot. If anything, it’ll lift the overall standards up. It’ll be a tough eight months ahead to get that ticket to Paris.”