Michael Hooper admits he is grappling with significant self doubt as the Wallabies great starts his unlikely bid for an Olympics gold medal.
The 32-year-old former Test captain is now officially a sevens player after signing a new deal with Rugby Australia and will report to fulltime training with the national team in January.
Hooper played the last of his 125 Tests against South Africa in July and was sensationally axed by Eddie Jones for the Rugby World Cup.
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« Of course there’s doubt. I thought I was going to go to the World Cup and didn’t so you’ve reopened a wound there, » Hooper joked on Stan Sport’s Rugby Heaven.
« This is our game – injury, form, selection, are you even good enough to get in the team? I’ve come in here and there are genuine guns in here and I’ve got to work my way in. It’s a different game.
« We’re passing, we’re scrummaging, we’re doing the things we do in rugby but this is a different kettle of fish and that’s what’s so exciting. The idea that things might not work out enters my mind but it’s on me to push that down and do the work to try and make sure it doesn’t happen. »
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Hooper has already spent some time training with the sevens squad under coach John Manenti but will miss this weekend’s SVNS season opener in Dubai as well as round two in Cape Town.
He hopes to make his debut in Perth on January 26-28.
« I’ve got a lot of work to go, » Hooper admitted.
« The gap is quite significant at the moment, so I need to get moving. January can’t come quick enough in terms of a training point of view.
« I’m doing a lot personally on the outside of it, but these guys are proper athletes. (Former Wallabies and sevens star) Rob Horne said to me ‘you’re no longer a rugby player, you’re an athlete.’ So I’ve got to change my mentality there…. the main excitement for me is to try and see if I could do something else and be good at it. »
Hooper was synonymous with the famous Wallabies No.7 jersey during his XVs career but is now bracing for a very different role.
« I think I’m going to be putting the 21mm studs on in the front row, you know, big scrummager, » he joked.
« I won’t have some angry front rowers yelling at me. »
Australian sevens captain Nick Malouf said he was already enjoying the ability to tap into Hooper’s vast leadership experience but the young squad is also having some fun at his expense.
« Being the new guy, the guys called me ‘rook’ straight out the gate. So that’s enjoyable, » Hooper said.
« They can do it when they just run around me, you know. Hopefully we do some contact drills later – I can try and get some back. »
Sevens used to be viewed as a beer swilling, festival sport but its addition to the Olympics has supercharged the standard and professionalism.
Fiji has won both men’s gold medals, in Rio and Tokyo, with Australia knocked out in the quarter-finals both times.
There is little precedent for what Hooper is trying to achieve.
Sonny Bill Williams played for New Zealand in Rio and ruptured his Achilles early in the tournament.
Perhaps scarred by that injury, Williams told Hooper « don’t do it » when consulted about a potential switch.
France superstar Antoine Dupont is also chasing the lure of sevens gold in Paris.
« I’ve played one tournament – Kiama Sevens for Manly, » Hooper said.
« So we’re going back a long way, 2008, like 15 years… it puts your skill set under an absolute microscope. Everyone has to be passing from scrumhalf, everyone has to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Your long pass, putting them on a dime is important, footwork and all that. I’m sort of at the bottom, creeping up. »
Malouf told Rugby Heaven that it was a thrill to be rubbing shoulders with a player of Hooper’s stature.
« If you had told me a few years ago that we were going to have the opportunity to have Hoops join us for an Olympic campaign, I would have probably told you to wake me up because I must have been dreaming, » Malouf said.
« His CV speaks for itself. For me personally, a great guy to have just in terms of his leadership to help me out with those sorts of things.
« I know all the young boys get excited because he’s the pinnacle.
« He’s done what so many kids dream of, growing up, watching Australian rugby. So the chance to compete against him at every training session, he’s out there with us this morning, throwing his head over a couple of breakdowns. So straight away, he’s trying to figure out how he can use his strengths and I think he’s going to be a great fit for us. »