Impressive Hooper a courageous leader on and off the pitch

Wallaby flanker has performed a service for the greater good of all by being open about his own mental health issues

There is a great deal to admire about Michael Hooper.

The obvious starting point is the rugby player, a brilliant, relentless openside flanker, whose ability to thrive in adversity made him a logical choice to captain his country, a feat he’s managed more than any other player in Australian rugby history, breaking that particular record against South Africa in 2021 when he did so for the 60th time.

He’s discharged that role in generally less favourable circumstances than some of his illustrious predecessors, albeit acknowledging the Wallabies won the 2015 Rugby Championship under head coach Michael Cheika and reached the World Cup final the same year, before losing to New Zealand at Twickenham.

Throughout his international career which began against Scotland in 2012, the 31-year-old Sydney native, who wins his 124th cap at the Aviva Stadium today, has been a gold standard openside flanker. He’s won the John Eales medal, an award that recognises Australia’s player of the year, four times, which is a record – at Test level.


A recurring image is his occasionally bloodied, creased features surviving yet another force nine clear-out at breakdowns to win turnovers or penalties. He’s led not only by word but in the way he played the game, a ferocious competitor but one that understood the importance of magnanimity in victory or defeat.

An inspiration to team-mates at the Waratahs and Australia on the pitch, recently he performed a service for the greater good of those who struggle with mental health issues.

On the eve of the Wallabies’ opening Rugby Championship fixture against Argentina in August, he left the Australian camp overwhelmed by personal concerns regarding his mental health.

He returned in time for the Wallabies’ northern hemisphere tour and before the game against Scotland spoke frankly about his experiences during that three-month playing hiatus. He sought advice from family, friends, and professional counsellors, all the while leaning heavily on the support of his wife, Kate.

“As a younger man, I viewed asking for help as a bit of a weakness. You want to feel like you have it all worked out and I certainly didn’t. I’ve been playing the game for a long time, had some great changes in my life happen this year and there were a lot of things running through my head showing up in Argentina, and [it] wasn’t the place where I needed to sort these things out.

“It was probably exacerbated being overseas away from home but certainly where I’m at, in my career and things like that, you start to look at post-rugby.

“I wanted to be around family. I wanted to be in a place where I could put the time in to those things that I needed to put in. That doesn’t mean that I’m sitting here now completely cured. It’s not like that at all.

“At that point in time, I needed to be somewhere else. That wasn’t Argentina. I know that’s quite vague but, yeah, I’m still getting my head around it. It’s not that long ago. I’ve got a family now. I’ll look back on this period and going through it, it’s a part of life. It’s part of being human, all this stuff, a great time in my life.”

He could easily have opted to peddle a back injury as a reason for his absence but instead decided to tackle the issue honestly. That took courage but then bravery is a quality Hooper has never lacked.

James Slipper, who has captained the Wallabies in Hooper’s absence and continues to do so after his return said: “As a good mate of his, I’m just happy that he’s back and healthy. That’s the main thing. Secondary to that is the captaincy. It’s probably in everyone’s best interests that Hoops just concentrates on himself.

“We want him enjoying himself and being happy. So, I was happy to take the leadership role for the rest of the year and whatever happens in the future, that can happen.”

It’s great to see him back on a pitch, possibly less so if you’re an Irish supporter hoping for a home win today, but irrespective of the outcome, Hooper’s presence should be celebrated for once again demonstrating leadership on an important topic that transcends sport.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer