Wallabies bolter and lineout decoder Tom Hooper returns for Brumbies as fight breaks out in front of Eddie Jones
All year the Rebels’ lineout has been one of their strengths. Indeed, they’re ranked No.2 in the competition. But if there’s someone who knows how to decode it, it could well be Tom Hooper.
Somewhat lost amid the storm generated by Rugby Australia’s executive movement, Super Rugby drafts and the battle through May to find momentum and interest heading into the finals, was the quiet return of Hooper.
Sidelined for the first 10 weeks of the competition because of a devastating foot injury in the Brumbies’ pre-season fixtures, the rising blindside flanker set about becoming the side’s Enigma Code.
“Previewing the opposition,” Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham described Hooper’s role.
“Every week, our last training session of the week, will be a combination of our plays and opposition plays, and Tom’s responsible for making sure the opposition lineout runs the way we think the opposition is going to run.”
So how effective has he been?
“He’s been good. He’s very analytical,” Larkham said.
“He’s got a lot of detail around the way he presents, he spends a lot of time prepping for those meetings and field sessions.
“That’s a credit to his character. He’s had a lot of work to do with his rehab and he finds extra time to spend more time looking at the opposition to help the starting team perform better on the weekend.”
Hooper’s return via the bench is another boost to the Brumbies’ depth as they attempt to go on with the job in 2023 after falling just short in recent years.
As Leinster and the Crusaders have shown for years, depth matters.
It allows sides to strategically plan their run to the finals and Hooper’s return not only adds to their side but strengths its top two ambitions.
“You just see him out there today, just the amount of energy that he’s bringing to the group, the communication that he brings on the field in and around the huddle space and then just generally in attack and defence,” Larkham said.
“It’s good to have someone like that comeback in who has really good experience and certainly brings a lot of energy.”
A rugged blindside flanker who can easily shift to the second-row, Hooper had many licking their lips over his potential late last season.
“He was tireless tonight, he did a lot of tight work,” Argentina coach Michael Cheika said of Hooper. “I haven’t watched a lot of him but he is a real competitor, which I love.”
It’s likely Cheika saw a bit of Hooper in one of his former Wallabies, Scott Fardy.
Fardy built a career on work-rate, hitting rucks and owning the lineout.
In the 2015 World Cup, Fardy was the unsung hero of the Wallabies’ run to the final.
Just as colleague Harry Jones wrote earlier this week, the Wallabies have not been able to replace him since his quiet departure to Ireland where he won the hearts and minds of Leinster.
There is still time for Hooper to emerge despite his delayed return, particularly if the Brumbies go deep in the season.
Nor is he the only start to return against the Rebels, with Wallabies centre Len Ikitau making a timely return against a Rebels attack that has stretched many oppositions with Carter Gordon calling the shots.
Emerging props Rhys Van Nek and Blake Schoupp also make a timely return via the bench against a Rebels side with a strong front-row.
So has the recognisable and skilful Test back-rower Pete Samu.
Jahrome Brown, too, has returned to wear the No.7 jersey.
A back-rower with plenty of meat and size on him, Brown hasn’t shown the same devastating impact he provided when he burst on the season against the Stormers in Cape Town before COVID-19.
But he remains someone who is strong over the ball and possesses the defensive bite that Sam Cane offers the Chiefs, which will be crucial going forward after the Brumbies were exposed through the middle against Asafo Aumua’s Hurricanes side.
“I don’t think it’s ever a good time to have a loss,” Larkham said.
“We’ve come in with a good focus so from that perspective, it’s probably sharpened us up a little bit.”
Their returns came as Wallabies coach Eddie Jones watched on, undoubtedly keen to see how Australia’s premier Super Rugby side was operating underneath someone else’s watch.
It also saw some push and shove between Van Nek and Test hooker Connal McInerney, which ended in good spirits with some dancing in a huddle.
“That was a really good session, we’ve asked the boys to train a little bit harder in our first big training day of the week,” Larkham said.
“We had a good session around clarity. But there was a fair bit of contact out there.
“We had Eddie down presenting this morning, presenting his vision for the World Cup and that probably lifted the intensity of training.
“There was some good meeting space this morning, not just with Eddie but the other coaches. We had a really good focus coming out onto the field and then there was a little bit of added spice, a couple of fights, which is what you want to see. Nothing too serious but the boys certainly trained really hard.”