Wallabies captain Michael Hooper is expecting another “emotional” response from Argentina as Australia seek to win a fourth straight Rugby Championship game on the Gold Coast on Saturday.
The opening game was won unconvincingly by the Aussies and featured several running battles. In the aftermath it was revealed the Argentinans felt “disrespected” over a photo snub and that followed onto the pitch.
As the touring squad has been rocked by the loss of six players who took an ill-advised trip over the state line into New South Wales and have been barred from the match, Hooper said his team was braced for another backlash.
“We are fully aware that every Test is a hard one,” Hooper said on Friday. “We’ve got to be on our game, whether it’s New Zealand, Argentina, anyone in this competition otherwise you get stung. We know it’s coming our way and we’ve got to understand that, be on our game, deliver what we can for 80 minutes and really build a performance that we’re proud of.
“It’s always an emotional game when we play any team in a Test match. We expected that and we expect more of the same this week.”
At his Captain’s Run press conference, Hooper was also asked about the impact that Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi have had on the team, the potential return of Will Skelton and the impact of Dave Rennie and his coaching staff. Here’s everything he had to say.
On coming to the end of a ‘challenging’ series and the Pumas’ border indiscretion
“We’ve had to get over some sore bodies, it’s our fifth game on the trot so we’ve had a really good balance this week of recovery and then getting the work in that we need to do,” said Hooper.
“We know Argentina will bounce back. There’s a little bit going on there, they’re full of emotion and they want to improve on their last game. The focus has been okay we’re playing the team the same team again but we can be a lot better this week.
“Staff and management are good terms of allowing certain things to happen around families and time off and trying to get us a mental refresh. It’s been challenge, as it has for every team, but we’re lucky we get to play rugby and to represent the country. We’re doing it in our own country, which is great.
Queensland, by and large, has been pretty unrestricted in terms of what we’ve been able to do and likewise in Perth. It’s great just to be playing and not having some of the dramas that we had last year.”
Hooper said he couldn’t tell how the quarantine issue would affect the Wallabies’ opponents.
“I guess we were as surprised as anyone but we had to knuckle back down and get on with our stuff,” he said of the news.
“That has been a focus for our team for a long time now, seeing what we can control.
“We know we left a lot out there on the weekend and can go up another level. We know there’s going to be a fair bit of emotion kicking off this game as we’ve seen in games like last year in a similar circumstance.”
He was asked if he felt for the tourists, who have been on the road for months and didn’t get to play a Test at home in the series.
“Absolutely. To make this competition work everyone’s having to make sacrifices and it’s them more than most,” Hooper said.
“I think everyone’s appreciative that the competition’s been able to run and we’ve been able to have it in our backyard. That’s a win for us I guess. But it’s certainly hard for everyone involved. It’s the state of play at the moment and we’ve got to get on with it.”
On how his year rates so far
Hooper was asked if this was his best season as a Wallabies player.
“Every year is great to represent the jersey and try to improve week to week, grow as a team and get some consistency down,” Hooper said.
“What has been pleasing is we’re starting to gain some momentum now. We’re talking about things during the week and executing them on the field.
“We’re still chasing that really solid 80 minute performance and being extra clinical with that. So there’s always a goal to work for.
“There’s a good looking team this week, with a couple of changes in there and some exciting stories in the mix as well. It’s always hard to rate against different years, different groups. We’ve been here for a long time now, which has been awesome. But it’s hard to judge on any one particular year.”
On how coaching changes have benefitted the team
“It’s a mixture of things,” Hopper said. “It’s not that things haven’t been there in the past. It’s just another year further that we’re understanding a new system and a new game plan.
“We had quite a short run up into last year’s campaign with a lot of new players, big squads, which was unfamiliar at the time, 40 odd people go across to New Zealand.
“Now we have a lot of similar faces, another year of exposure to a Wallaby environment and a long time together.
“We’ve been together now for three and a bit months on the trot. So a lot of rugby talk.
“We’re getting a good set up on a Monday in terms of what’s being delivered to us what we can expect from opposition teams, and then there’s been a good uptake from our players, particularly the last couple of weeks.
“But just four weeks ago, we were three losses on the trot so it hasn’t been a perfect run by any stretch and we’re not nailing things. There’s so much improvement and growth in us and we’ve got to stay focused on that there’s still there’s still some level ups we can we can attain. I think that’s exciting.”
On the promotion of Pete Samu to the starting team
“Not only can he cover all positions but on the ground, in turnover positions, he’s great, ball carry is excellent, good presence around the tackle as well,” Hooper said.
Samu had “aood engine on him to get through a lot of work,” he added. “There’s a lot to like about Pete. When he’s come off the pine in all his games he’s changed the pace. He’s done something in the form of a little line break or a sneaky pick or just a good bit of link play.
“That’s been really impressive. Now he’s got more minutes to do more of the same. It’s really good reward for someone who’s been adding a lot for us off the bench.”
On the return of Sean McMahon
Hooper said he was “stoked to play with Seany”.
“It’s not since 2017 we were playing together,” he said. “He was playing a lot of eight at the time I played seven and I enjoyed that combination with him.
“He brings a really good dynamic to the team in the form of real aggression and a super work rate. He’s been training really hard in the last couple of weeks being back and he’s a great character to have back in the team. His enthusiasm to be in the Wallaby gold has really been noticeable.”
On the Wallabies’ squad depth
“The selectors have a challenge every week,” said Hooper. “There are guys constantly performing on Saturday, and then on the training paddock as well which means there’s guys putting up their hands that unfortunately aren’t getting a run.
“Dave’s spoken about those guys as well. It’s a tough position to be in when you start to get to the ninth or 10th Test in the middle of the year and it’s your last game in Australia and you don’t get any minutes.
“But our guys have been putting up their hands each week, preparing the 23 to play the best they possibly can.
“It’s a challenge with a lot of players here, but our guys have taken to it really well and it’s something that we want to continue to grow, because if someone goes down we need that position to be filled and filled well.
“The great thing about competition and the depth that’s being created is we’ve got plenty of options and that’s going to do well for us in the next couple of years.”
On Will Skelton and talks he will play on the Spring Tour
Hooper said he had only seen his former Waratahs teammate play one game since heading overseas, a European Cup final for Saracens two years ago.
Asked to comment on Skleton’s attributes, Hooper said: “He’s got the ability to change a game, his size, he’s a great fella to have around the team, really good in terms of off field stuff.
“For the lack of rugby that I’ve seen him play I’ve heard a lot of good things in terms of when he’s been in shape, he’s made a real impact in the Premier League up there and now he’s up in France obviously and I’ve heard some great things around that.
“It’s been a long time since been in the jersey so it’s great to hear that he’s keen to be involved.”
Hooper said the older overseas guys had helped raise the group.
“Depth and experience allows stuff to transfer between players, ideas be shared,” Hooper said. “Everyone trains harder when you know you’ve got some direct competition there and some handing down of experience which is something that we want to keep growing as well.
“A lot of our guys who are in the team now grew up watching some of those guys play when they were still at school. To get the opportunity to play with them breeds a lot of excitement about the jersey in house as well.”
On how much of a difference Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi have made
“How can you hypothesize that?” said Hooper, when asked to assess the Cooper and Kerevi impact. “They’ve been really good for us, they brought a lot on and off the field and we’ve got some great centres as well who aren’t getting the time.
“Who knows what would have happened with the trajectory of our team?”
On the return of veteran prop Greg Holmes and his famous try from 2006
“Age is just a number, right?” said Hooper of the 38-year-old Holmes. “He’s been playing really well overseas for a long time.
“That was no secret to the people who have been around him. Nic White was in the same team with him at Exeter, and he wasvery valuable in terms of what he could do around a scrum and then just in terms of being a good bloke.
“He’s added that space since he’s been in here, and good experience. It’s guys like Angus Bell who get to scrum against him in training and that creates a good challenge for a young prop like that with a big future.”
Hooper was asked if he remembered seeing Holmes’ 50 metre try against Ireland in real time.
“You don’t know if it’s because you’ve seen it so many times that you think of it as a memory,” Hooper said. “I like to think that I watched it. He says it’s about 70 or 80 metres – but it’s a genuine 50-55.
“We’ve played it a couple of times and he shakes his head in the team room but he clearly loves it.
“We’ve just been asking for the same from [James Slipper] but I think Slips’ only Test try was half a metre at the World Cup two years ago. We’ll try and get Slips another one this weekend.”