Michael Hooper has always been ahead of the game in some way or another.
At just 19 years old and a fresh graduate from St. Pius X College in Chatswood, Hooper was thrown his Super Rugby debut for the ACT Brumbies.
Six years on, he’d become the youngest player to record 100 appearances having already skippered the Waratahs to their maiden title in 2014 in place of the injured Dave Dennis.
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By then he had already written his name into Australian rugby folklore.
In 2014, Hooper (22 years and 268 days) was unveiled as Wallabies captain – the youngest since the great Ken Catchpole in 1961.
Now, eight years after running out for his first-ever Test in the green and gold, Hooper will become the youngest of 12 Australians ever to reach the century.
He would’ve been the fastest in the world to make the milestone had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic – but few people were ahead of the game on that one.
Hooper’s Test debut came in the final 15 minutes of what was a forgettable night in Newcastle, with the rain-soaked pitch dampening an already painful night against Scotland.
It’s been far from an easy path since for the now 28-year old, who has led Australia to just 19 wins from 46 Tests as skipper.
That 44.56 per cent winning strike rate is the lowest of any Wallabies captain since David Codey in 1997, who only lost the one game.
There have been questions raised over his place in the team as well as his capability to be the leader Australian rugby needs on the field.
Then there’s been the disruption off it – the Israel Folau saga and four different coaches who have each come in with their own vision of what the Wallabies will look like under their watch.
All four of them – Robbie Deans, Ewen McKenzie, Michael Cheika and now Dave Rennie – have backed Hooper to be a part of that vision and the latter three made him captain.
They’ve all seen something in him.
“Michael loves Australia and his record as a player speaks for itself but he’s exactly the type of man we want see in rugby,’ Cheika said of Hooper when he was confirmed the new Wallabies skipper in 2017.
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But what is that ‘something’ they see in him, the ‘type of man’ that Cheika spoke of.
It’s the same consistency and workhorse mentality that has defined Hooper’s reputation for so long.
While some may see the need for a new direction, Hooper is Rennie’s one constant as he pilots the Wallabies through a turbulent period and into a new era.
That same determination and single-mindedness has stayed with Hooper since his teeenage years and made him destined for the green and gold from a young age.
That is at least according to Matthew Stearn, who was Hooper’s coach during his senior years at St. Pius.
“Even back in 2008, I was interviewed in my first year at Pius by one of the reporters from the North Shore Times and back then I said to them if he wasn’t a Wallaby I didn’t know what was,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“That was back in 2008. He always looked like he was a Wallaby.
“Even as a 17-year old – the physicality he brought to the game was another level and his reading of the game was another level.
“I remember a point with Mick when he said to me: ‘How do you want me to play the game, what do you want me to do?’
“And I basically said to him: ‘Do what you’re doing because what you’re doing you can’t put a price on’.
“His natural ability in the game was next-level.”
Hooper’s scramble and try-saving tackles in defence aren’t a fluke – they’re a combination of incredible speed, an intense recovery level and an engine that has been with him since his school days.
“He had this ability to be in the right place at the right time,” Stearn said.
“He had an engine that was just unstoppable. I watch him play now and still in a Wallabies jersey I can see him running around in a Pius jersey.
“He still plays with the same enthusiasm of a schoolboy.”
Uncapped Queensland Reds trio Harry Wilson, Filipo Daugunu and Hunter Paisami are set to be unleashed in the starting side against the All Blacks on Sunday while Brumbies playmaker Noah Lolesio will come off the bench.
It comes after Rennie named a 44-man squad featuring 16 uncapped players and plenty more lacking international experience.
When Hooper was first handed the captaincy, he was the second-youngest player in the Test squad.
Now, with what is about to be 100 Tests under his belt, the Reds trio will be looking at him as skipper to lead the way.
When it came to team huddles, Hooper had always been sharp and to the point in his school days according to Stearn – his tireless work ethic was more than enough of an example to follow.
But even when he wasn’t on the field, Hooper didn’t just step away.
He understood his role, “he was the leader that the boys listened to” as Stearn explained.
“Mick got injured just before the first ISA game in year 12 and went on rehab from there.
“I took him to Queensland on the Rugby Tour and he coached the side.
“He coached the team. I was the coach but he coached them.
“They just listened to him. You notice it when he talks, you see him in the huddles. When he talks people listen. He had that same quality as a school kid and that’s pretty rare.
“His first XV, there were some loose heads in that team but they listened to Mick and they knew his value. His value as a leader was as much about how he played the game and what he put into it as what he had to say about it.”
His record at Pius speaks for itself.
From 2004-2007, he captained the school’s top sides to 36 wins, three draws and four losses.
He had 42 tries to his name from just 43 games and was named ‘best and fairest’ each year.
Even before that when he joined Pius in 2002, Hooper’s name was already being tossed around according to his junior school coach Sean Brannan.
“He was known,” Brannan said, explaining it had a lot to do with his father David, who played for Blackheath and Manly.
“His reputation had preceded him. He was already known in district circles and Manly rep teams.”
Mark Pawlak, Hooper’s coach from years seven to 10 added: “He was the only player I have coached where every opposing coach had knowledge of him,.”
When it comes to constructive feedback, Hooper’s father David is one of the only ones he knows he can genuinely listen to.
“Dave Hooper was obviously very knowledgeable in terms of rugby anyway and he was one of those parents who never interfered with the coaching process,” Stearn said.
“But he would have given Mick more feedback than anyone when he was growing up. Logical statistics to prove to Mick what he was doing right and what he could improve.”
Brannan had already been introduced to Michael’s brother Richard but was soon warned that this next Hooper coming through was even better.
He was so good that Brannan would have to apologise to opposition coaches during games.
“It was just his determination, speed, strength and single-mindedness,” he said.
Brannan described Hooper as the “natural leader that held that team together” as he captained the 11As to an undefeated season.
Like fellow classmate and future Wallaby, Luke Jones, both Brannan and Stearn knew Hooper was destined for greatness on the rugby field.
They didn’t need to remind him either.
That’s not to say Hooper lacked humility – he was as unassuming as they come, quick to deflect attention onto his teammates.
“He was unfazed, unfussed and concentrated on what was important and let his rugby speak for himself on the field,” Brannan said.
“He didn’t go around telling you how good he was, he just showed you how good he was.”
Rather, it was the single-mindedness that Brannan spoke about that had Hooper always looking at his life beyond the halls of Pius.
“Comparing him to players around him… he always had a mature focus,” Brannan said.
“He knew what to prioritise and how to get the most out of himself. He also looked at the big picture.
“I could point to the fact he didn’t make the Australian Schoolboys in year 11.
“He didn’t lose his bundle and came back the next year and I think he injured his shoulder and the doctor said you can put off this operation and get the treatment you need and go away and try make the Australian schoolboys.
“His attitude was ‘No, I need the operation. Australian schoolboys isn’t important. I want to be a Wallaby’.
“He always had the big picture. That maturity and single-minded determination were what struck you about him.”
Hooper still remained grounded though.
Since he was 16, he’s always received a message from the same person before every match he’s played.
“I know his mum was always a big supporter of his,” Brannan said.
“Even when he made rep teams, Super teams and Australian teams, she’d send him a bit of inspiration prior to big games.
“A text message or recording to help him concentrate. When he made the Wallabies she stopped doing it and he said: ‘Mum, why’d you stop doing it?’
‘She said: ‘You’ve made the Wallabies now I can’t help you as much.’
“But he was always of the opinion: ‘That’s what got me there I don’t want to think I’m any better than I was before’.
“He wasn’t above anyone or thinking he was better than anyone. He was always happy for anyone to support him any way they could. He didn’t forget people who helped him along the way.”
When Hooper takes to the field for his 100th Test on Sunday, he leads out a Wallabies side heading into a fascinating new era under Rennie.
But as the new coach said when he stood by his 99-Test Wallaby: “We’re planning on going in a new direction, but it doesn’t mean you need to change the furniture totally.”
Hooper has always been a key part of that furniture – a mainstay as the spotlight has been increasingly pointed directly at his leadership in an underperforming Wallabies outfit.
As a then 20-year old ran out for his first Test in the torrential Newcastle rain, he would have never known the path he would have to take to reach the point he is at now.
“There wouldn’t be many blokes who’d have to deal with the coach leaving, your Izzy Folau affair and a team that wants to perform better and is struggling to find his identity,” Stearn said.
“Now he’s changed coaches.”
Through all of that, as Stearn continued, “Mick’s the choice.”
“He’s gone through three coaches now and he’s still captain. That speaks volumes for Michael really.
“I do hold him in hugely high regard. I find what he’s done has pretty special really through a tough time for Australian rugby.”