As Waratahs Captain Michael Hooper prepares to make history this weekend as the youngest Super Rugby centurion ever, RUPA caught up with his mum Raeleen to gain a unique insight into the two-time John Eales Medal winner.
Playing sport, and especially Rugby, was always at the forefront for Michael and his elder brother Richard as they grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
“When I met my English husband David, he was playing first grade for Manly,” Raeleen explains. “He had moved out to Australia, landed on the Manly Wharf and met the president of the Manly Rugby Club and as they say, the rest is history!
“David also played for NSW against England and for the Barbarians against other provincial teams. I come from a sports-mad family myself, so when we had the boys our thoughts were that they should play sport and that it was imperative for their well-being that they did.”
But it wasn’t just Rugby which caught the boys’ eye, even if the ideals of the game separated it from other sports in the eyes of Raeleen and David.
“They played soccer, indoor soccer, they were in the surf club, they did athletics, they played basketball and Michael played cricket too. Our family motto was that no matter what sport they were playing, if you commit to that sport and to your team, you’ve got to stay till the end and give it your best.
“Rugby was something they always seemed to have a special affinity with,” Raeleen continues. “Richard started when he was five or six, and Michael was on the sideline as he was still too young to play; we would have to literally hold him by the collar because he was so desperate to play. Heading into one game the team were down on players and they convinced us to let him run on, and he played from that point onwards; he just loved it.
“As parents, we have always loved that Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes; you could be a really tall lanky kid and be in the second row, if you were a kid that was ‘big-boned’ you would be in the front row, and if you’re the really lightweight fast guy you can certainly play on the wing.
“The boys went St. Pius from Year 5 through to Year 12, and Rugby was part of their curriculum which meant that the school made it a game for everybody, where all the students deserved a chance. They lost many of the games that they played but they developed a great sense of comradery and that same mateship is probably why Richard still plays first grade for Manly now.”
Fast forward to 2010 and Hooper made his Super Rugby debut for the Brumbies, replacing injured teammate and fellow Manly product George Smith, at the age of just 18. ‘Hoops’ went on to play 31 games for the Brumbies before moving back to Sydney and joining the Waratahs, where he has played a further 68 times. He earned the full-time Captaincy after deputising for the injured David Dennis when the ‘Tahs won their first ever title in 2014.
Click here to read George Smith’s tribute to Michael Hooper after he won his second John Eales Medal.
At an international level, Michael made his Test debut in 2012 and has already amassed a staggering 65 caps for his country despite being just 25 years of age, including Captaining his side on a number of occasions after first filling in for an injured Stephen Moore in 2014.
Raeleen says that Michael is determined to enjoy the opportunity he has to tour the world and play the game he loves as his chosen career.
“He’s pretty worldly for a 25-year-old,” she laughs.
“He’s played Rugby in about nine different countries, and you know, wouldn’t be able to count on two hands the number of times he has been to South Africa, UK, or Europe. Rugby is such an international game, and I think I’m right in saying that Michael has played more games for the Wallabies at Twickenham than he has at any other ground.
“The experience that you get from travelling is amazing; learning how to adapt into a different community and lifestyle, learning how to be more organised and learning how important it is to relax and go with the flow and not get stressed. Some people might not realise that Michael and his teammates travel within incredibly tight timeframes.
“This week they played in Durban on Sunday morning (Australian time), and then they’ve been straight on a plane back and in to training. This is on top of dealing with jetlag, getting all your clothes washed, making sure you catch up with your partners, your family, your friends, coming down from the highs and the lows of the game and then getting yourself back up to a hundred percent again for the next game on Saturday. That’s an intense environment for these young men to be in.”
This is not to say that Raeleen doesn’t appreciate that Michael and his teammates are fortunate to enjoy so many wonderful experiences as part of their career.
“Yes, it’s not really a relaxed, easy lifestyle, but yes they’re certainly very lucky with some of the opportunities that are presented to them,” she says. “Going to Argentina, for example, Michael certainly enjoys that and he’s been able to introduce us to Malbec, while he loves touring France and has been able to pick up a little bit of the French language.
“I know one of the things that stuck in his mind was that he got to walk and lay the wreath with a Digger at the Arc de Triomphe on Armistice Day; he was 22 at the time, and he was certainly very moved by that. Going into Buckingham Palace and meeting the Royals; they’re life changing experiences, and I know that he feels very privileged to receive those opportunities.”
Being parents of an elite athlete has allowed Raeleen, David and Richard to travel the world and watch Michael in action, but with it has also come many challenges which other athletes’’ family members can probably appreciate.
“We’re first time parents to an elite sportsperson, and interestingly enough you don’t get any education; it’s just like becoming a parent for the first time where your baby arrives and off you go, good luck!
“We constantly talk about how we can provide support to Michael, and what that support looks like. Mostly, it’s about making sure we’re available when he needs us; if he rings and says he’s coming around for a coffee, that usually means he needs to have a chat about something.
“As much as we’re dying to know how he’s going and everything about what is happening in his Rugby life, we try to talk about everything other than Rugby until he brings it up. We talk about his dog, his house and the renovations he wants to do, what’s happening with his brother and his friends and all his extended family, and we really try not to talk about Rugby until he is ready to have that conversation. Finally, we try and make sure that we’re on the sideline for him, just so he knows that we are there.”
Raeleen and David are acutely aware that while Michael has played a phenomenal number of matches and minutes since making a very young debut, things can change very quickly and he is also at risk of spreading himself too thin.
“We definitely do worry about burnout,” she says. “Is he just going to get to a point where, enough is enough and he just walks away from it all? Right now, he is just as passionate about the game as ever, but I have always said to him that the day he doesn’t love playing it is the day you should walk away and he has said in an interview that it’s some of the best advice anybody has ever given him.
“The game is a tough game, and if you are not one hundred percent, then it’s probably best to put your boots up and go and try something new. We feel very confident that he knows how to manage himself, and we know that he is very good at switching on and off. When he’s at Rugby he’s totally committed, but then when he comes to our house he leaves the Rugby at the door and we talk about how to cook a great steak, what wine would go with the steak and all sorts of things.
“I think Michael is under no illusion that he could be finished tomorrow; one bad injury and you’re done. He’s certainly seen that happen to other people, yet he also knows that you could have amazing longevity. The most important thing is that he knows that Rugby doesn’t define him, and that it teaches you some fantastic things such as resilience. If you appreciate all the attributes that you’ve gained from Rugby, those attributes will be beneficial going into the workforce.
“Watching at close quarters on the periphery of the team in the UK at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, David and I witnessed a group of forty men travelling together for seven weeks and living in each other’s hip pockets. They’re all pushing to play a game that is highly physical and you can imagine the testosterone that builds up through the week, but then everybody expects you by Sunday to be the calm, laid-back guy that you were after you’ve played in the biggest competition in the world against some of the biggest teams and players.
“That ability to switch in and out of that will hold Michael in great stead when it is time to move into the workforce. We also talk to him about the importance of networking; getting to know and understand people and what makes them tick. I speak with (RUPA GM, Player Development) Rosemary Towner and we know that Michael is still not sure what he might do when his playing days end.
“I’ve always been really impressed with RUPA’s desire to help the boys prepare for that transition, because Michael literally finished his HSC on Thursday and then moved down to the Brumbies the following Monday.”
Ahead of the milestone that is reaching 100 games of Super Rugby this Saturday evening, appropriately against the Brumbies at Allianz Stadium, there is one thing about Michael which Raeleen is proudest of.
“The one thing that Michael always does, and which I think is amazing given his tight time schedule, is that he always makes time for his friends and family,” she proudly says. “Even if it is a phone call to his Nan and Pa, or a text message to his brother or one of his cousins or mates, he always makes the time for others he cares about. He makes sure he makes time for his partner, and for us as his family, and I’m pretty sure he actually plans how he’s going to do that.”
From a young tyke being held back by the collar to a record breaking centurion who never forgets those who have helped shape who he is today; congratulations to Michael Hooper on what you’ve achieved already, who you are, and what is still to come.