Read reveals All Blacks’ ultimate respect for history-making Hooper
For five years, Michael Hooper and Kieran Read would barely exchange small talk as they shook hands before Bledisloe Cup Tests.
The long-serving captains respected each other, but there were no pleasantries as the leaders of teams that maintained a healthy disdain for one another.
Rivals … Kieran Read and Michael Hooper.Credit:Getty
Before COVID-19 changed the world, it was impossible to envisage the pair lining up alongside one another on the same team, fighting for the same result.
But that’s exactly what happened earlier this year, when Hooper joined Read and former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen at Toyota Verblitz.
The Hooper that Read expected was not the Hooper that arrived, skateboard in hand, in Japan.
Kieran Read and Michael Hooper never thought they’d play on the same team.Credit:Getty
“He was completely different,” Read told the Herald on the eve of Hooper’s record-breaking 60th Test as Wallabies captain. “I see a guy who’s very driven, very intense on the field. To be honest, away from, it he was a completely different guy. Pretty relaxed around his build up. Obviously, he was very consistent and focused in the way he prepared, but he’s a relaxed fella.
“He grew up on the Manly beaches and there was a bit of that surfer dude in him. He was rocking a skateboard in Japan. He always had the long hair, but I never really thought it fit the mould until then.
“It was good to see that side of him and for his career, I know he kept talking to me about how it was great to get away from that pressure that’s constantly there when you’re playing for your state and internationals.”
That’s exactly how Hooper described his sabbatical. Time outside the Waratahs and Wallabies’ bubble – which has been his life for more than a decade – has seen Hooper return to the gold No.7 jersey in arguably career best form.
“It gave me time. I was out of the environment altogether. A snapshot of my career: Brumbies, Waratahs, Wallabies, that’s it. It’s been that since the end of ’09. That’s a pretty one-eyed view on rugby as a whole,” Hooper told the Herald.
Outside the bubble … Hooper playing for Toyota Verblitz in Japan.Credit:Getty
“Speak to any other player around the world, you start to build a perception of what you think other people are like or what rugby is meant to be. Going to Japan, for me, was not only a different experience, but you get to break down those walls of playing with different people, different countrymen, you’re not someone who’s been around the environment and know everything that’s coming. You’re the new kid at school.
“It was outstanding for me to have a different rugby experience and get a different perspective on rugby.”
The pair played golf together, shared many a change room yarn with one another and picked each other’s brains on leadership.
“I was very lucky with the fact that Kieran was open and willing to speak to it,” Hooper said.
“He would answer truthfully and authentically, and I was really appreciative of that. He threw some stuff back at me. It’s the same as Steve.
“There were no agendas anywhere and his openness – particularly with where he was in his career, right at curtains – he was very giving and everything like that. It was really cool.”
Since his return, Read can see a leader who is only now arriving at his prime.
“For me, it’s looking like there is that slight change. Sometimes as you get older after being thrust into captaincy quite young, you just grow in confidence as a leader. It takes time.
“And there’s adversity – you can’t grow just by winning all the time.
“Sometimes, the other side of the coin can accelerate that learning and to me, it looks like he’s really comfortable in his skin now.”
As Hooper, 29, will surpass George Gregan’s captaincy feat on Saturday night, talk has naturally turned to whether he can reach the halfback’s all-time Wallabies Tests record of 139 matches.
On current form, the 140-Test mark, which is 28 more than his current cap count, is within reach.
Just ask Read and the All Blacks, who, under Hansen, spent the majority of their previews focused on stopping one player.
“For us, when we came up against him, the respect that we showed was that basically every preview was spent targeting him,” Read said. “That was our way of showing him respect. We couldn’t let him get into the game.
“It’s hard when you’re not winning and things aren’t working out for the team, but it doesn’t diminish what he’s achieved in the game.
“He’s evolving and there’s no reason he couldn’t end up being the most capped Test player in the world if he wants to keep doing it.”
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