Captain Michael Hooper has withdrawn from the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship Test against Argentina 24 hours before kick-off, saying he isn’t in the “right mindset” to lead or represent the country.
The tireless flanker had been named to lead the side in his 122nd Test on Sunday morning (AEST) but will now return to Australia, missing both matches against the Pumas. Fellow Test centurion James Slipper will captain the side in Mendoza, while Fraser McReight will replace Hooper in the number seven jersey.
“While this decision did not come easily I know it is the right one for me and the team at this point in time,” Hooper said in a statement. “My whole career I’ve looked to put the team first and I don’t feel I am able to fulfill my responsibilities at the moment in my current mindset.”
Hooper addressed teammates prior to the announcement, telling the squad he had the utmost confidence they could win the tests against Argentina without him.
Coach Dave Rennie said his captain, aged 30, had shown “true courage”.
“Michael’s one of the most professional and impressive men I’ve coached. I know this has been a difficult decision for him,” he said. “He’s shown true courage by acknowledging where he is at and acting on it. We will support him in any way we can and I know the team will be focused on getting the job done tomorrow.”
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said there were no signs through the week of Hooper’s anguish. “Nothing was evident to us in how he trained, how he contributed around the team, around leadership was excellent but clearly he’s been struggling a bit and masking that pretty well,” Rennie told reporters from Argentina on Saturday (AEST).
“Obviously he’s been able to suppress things over the past handful of weeks and so we certainly weren’t aware of anything but he’s such a professional and he was able to get on and do the job.
“He addressed the team today which took an enormous amount of courage to let them know that he’s not OK and that he felt it was best for himself and for the team that he gets home. “It was an easy decision to let him go home where he will get plenty of support around him.”
Hooper reached out to the Wallabies team doctor Sharron Flahive, who put the wheels in motion for his return home. He will travel back to Sydney with Waratahs teammate Dave Porecki, who is unavailable for both Tests due to a training head knock.
Hooper captained Australia during their recent 2-1 series loss to England at home and has been a regular presence in the side since making his debut in 2012.
The Wallabies have a daunting schedule in the coming months. After two tests in Argentina, they return to Australia for Rugby Championship Tests against reigning world champions South Africa and then a two-test series against New Zealand, as they try and build momentum for the Rugby World Cup in France next year.
“Michael is an incredible leader, it takes a brave man to identify where he’s at and come forward whilst having the best interests of the team at heart,” Rugby Australia boss Andy Marinos said. “His wellbeing is and remains the highest priority right now where Rugby Australia and the Australian Rugby community will do everything to support him and his family.”
Hooper last year took a six-month sabbatical to leave Australian rugby and play in Japan’s Top League. He then took further contractual leave and missed most of the 2021 Super Rugby season for the NSW Waratahs.
Although Hooper returned for the latter part of the 2021 Super Rugby Pasifika season and led the Wallabies with customary aplomb in the recent home series against England, Hooper has spoken openly in the past about the stresses of professional sport, the pressure of leadership and the effects of social media on young players.
“You’re trying to be the best you can be and sometimes that doesn’t work out, and when it doesn’t: that’s hard to deal with,” Hooper told the media in the past. “I think it’s important, especially for young players, to be educated on how to deal with that.
“Players are getting a lot better at talking to each other about it,” Hooper said. “It’s certainly something that’s paramount, how people are feeling. There’s so much going on, you see so much stuff that’s constantly bombarding you about your job, day in and day out.”