When Michael Hooper withdrew less than 48 hours before the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship opener in Argentina, it shocked the world.
An outpouring of support was issued across the globe from Will Carling to Karmichael Hunt, as it was revealed that Hooper’s “mindset” was not right and he would miss the Test and fly home.
Yet for those closer to the situation, it was not as surprising.
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Hooper has been pushed to the point of breaking for some time, with few others afforded time in the saddle in his position despite the emergence of talented players like Fraser McReight.
Instead, with victories precious and coaching living by results, the Wallabies – and Super Rugby franchises, perhaps with the exception of the Brumbies and recently the Waratahs – have rolled out their premier players for fear of failure.
A talismanic leader, Hooper had not only been holding the Wallabies together on and off the field for years, he had been putting his head in places few dare go.
The second youngest Wallabies captain of all time, Hooper was the youngest player of all time to play 100 Tests.
Last year, he surpassed George Gregan’s (59) record of Tests captained last year, and he is just 18 shy of the 1999 World Cup-winner’s national record of 139.
All this at the tender age of 30, where he has been handed the captaincy by the past three Wallabies coaches after first being capped by another, Robbie Deans, in 2012.
At some point, age, or at least the sheer minutes he had spent on the playing field, was going to catch up with him.
Of Hooper’s 121 Tests, he has started in 115 of them and gone the full distance in 95 of those Tests. He has missed just 11 Tests, including the weekend’s 41-26 victory over Michael Cheika’s Argentina, since his debut against Scotland off the bench in Newcastle.
By comparison, Richie McCaw, who started in 141 of his 148 Tests, missed 37 Tests during his decorated career.
Interestingly, in the four years before he retired following the World Cup final in 2015, McCaw started 44 of 45 Tests during the period but only played the full 80 minutes in 33 of those Tests.
But, as age, his durability and the weight of captaining the All Blacks for so many years caught up to him, he missed nine Tests during that golden period.
New Zealand Rugby also afforded him a sabbatical in late 2012 and saw him make his comeback in mid-2013. He didn’t play, but rather cooled his heels.
In May, Hooper laughed off suggestions he could make it through to the home World Cup in 2027 by saying he was more likely to be having a “beer” in the stands at that point.
But it’s not just the home World Cup that feels like an eternity away for Hooper, it’s the 2025 British and Irish Lions series and, indeed, next year’s World Cup too.
It’s believed that after years of bouncing back up on a Sunday, the heavy knocks are starting to take their toll.
Recently, Hooper played in Brisbane against England despite being struck down by the flu during the week.
When he copped an early hit after being bounced by Ellis Genge, there was an element of concern around whether he had taken another head knock.
A week later, with the Wallabies’ injury toll stretching to double figures, he backed up for the series decider despite having a crooked back.
Earlier in the year, Hooper copped a high tackle from a replacement Crusaders forward, which drew a red card, and he spent two weeks on the sidelines.
Privately the Waratahs and Australian officials were filthy because the culprit, Hamish Dalzell, had also been penalized for a high shot moments earlier that didn’t earn any further punishment.
Concussion is something Hooper is particularly cognizant of.
It’s also understood the Wallabies are being belted on the training field.
Numerous sources, including at Rugby Australia, have also raised questions about the strength and conditioning methods being used under Dean Benton.
Questions have arisen after a number of players have suffered injuries at training in recent months.
There is a belief that the current group needs to be whipped into shape because they are not up to Test match standards.
For now Hooper, who arrived back in Australia on Sunday, is expected to rest and spend time with his family.
No timeframe has been given when the No. 7 will play next.
Sources believe he will miss the home Tests against the Springboks.
Fortunately the Wallabies have discovered they can play without Hooper and succeed.
But they might have learned too that humans are not machines.