The time is now: Michael Hooper. Photo: Anthony JohnsonEwen McKenzie is keeping his cards close to his chest on the Wallabies captaincy but the time could be right for Michael Hooper.
Young though he is – four years shy of the Wallabies’ average age of 26 – this column would argue that, apart from Israel Folau, Hooper is the only player whose position in the starting side is beyond question.
Stephen Moore, another favourite to take over from departing captain Ben Mowen and an undisputed leader within the squad, enjoyed a clear run at the starting No.2 jersey last year while his old rival Tatafu Polota-Nau recovered from a broken arm. A year earlier, however, it was Moore on the bench while Polota-Nau had the ascendancy. Who knows what this season will bring?
James Horwill was an excellent Wallabies captain when his form guaranteed a starting spot, and the absence of Sitaleki Timani and Kane Douglas this year may have shored that up for him.
But over and above Hooper’s remarkably consistent form, the NSW breakaway offers something neither Moore nor Horwill can: a fresh start.
Take McKenzie’s comments on the captaincy: “There are base attributes – the captain needs to be in the team and needs to be respected – but the style of leadership can vary depending on where you think the maturity of the team’s at and where the focus is. We have a bunch of things we need to do that we haven’t done in a long time in terms of winning trophies and things like that. We’ve spent the last six months turning over every stone trying to change things, not for the sake of it, but finding ways to take the team to another level.”
McKenzie spent a tumultuous four months ushering in change last year and will work at bedding down the side’s identity this season. Hooper, supported by Horwill’s passion and Moore’s no-nonsense abrasiveness, could be the figurehead for the Wallabies’ new era. He will face a leadership learning curve like no other but he will also be unencumbered by the disappointments and baggage of seasons past.
Whoever is chosen and announced in camp on the Gold Coast on June 1, McKenzie has made it clear he will need a captain with drive, energy and devotion in spades.
“You need to be able to set the tone and make sure it becomes an hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute focus, not just something that gets done for 80 minutes on the weekend,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of guys in mind because I don’t think the leadership of the team needs to be just one person’s job. I think a bunch of people need to lead and show the way but obviously you need to name someone, you just expect there will be some good lieutenants who will be helping out.”
WILL AND GRACE
Huge moment this week in the career of Waratahs youngster Will Skelton.
The towering NSW second-rower may warm the bench against the Rebels on Friday night but he is all of a sudden in contention for a gold jersey against France.
Skelton made the 32-man cut for the Wallabies this week and McKenzie made it clear he was not just handing out positions.
“What I liked about him is he’s got some sophistication in his game,” McKenzie said.
“It’s not just about being a big bloke and crashing into the defensive line. It’s the subtlety. Not just the offload, he knows when to pass the ball. They’re the things that make him a real threat for me.
“I sense the classy bits of football from him. I think everyone has this idea because you’re 130, 140 kilos that you suddenly can’t pass the ball.”
Skelton has a place at the expense of teammates Kane Douglas and Dave Dennis, but you cannot imagine either of them wishing the 22-year-old Test bolter anything but the best.
Bonne chance to former Wallabies Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, who travel to Cardiff this weekend with Toulon to face Saracens in the Heineken Cup final at Millennium Stadium.
The game has many anchor points, including Saracens’ remarkable charge to the final, England reject Chris Ashton’s record-breaking revival and Toulon’s shot at back-to-back titles.
But Jonny Wilkinson’s swansong is by far the most poignant storyline. Giteau said in Scotland it was on the mind of every player heading into Saturday’s match.
“It is incredibly important,” he said. “For selfish reasons as well, I would obviously like to win the title. But for a player like Jonny, who has done so much for the game in the way he has carried himself in the right light – he has never put a step wrong and he has been incredibly humble – it would mean a lot. For the region and the team, it would be great if we can send him off on the right note. He’d be embarrassed that we are talking about it because that is the player he is – he keeps himself focused on the team – but it would mean a lot to the group if we were able to send him out on the right terms.”
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