Hopper looks to continue dream season
January 19, 2012
Matt Hopper has filled the void left by George Lowe with ease at Harlequins © Getty Images
Matt Hopper admits his debut season at Harlequins has been better than his wildest expectations but he is not ready to relax just yet as the Twickenham Stoop side sit on the verge of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
The 26-year-old joined Harlequins last summer from the Cornish Pirates after they had narrowly missed out on promotion to the Aviva Premiership. Already he has played in front of 82,000 at Twickenham, starred against Toulouse and helped Harlequins to within touching distance of a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
Victory in Galway on Friday will seal Harlequins' place in the knock-out stages for the first time since 2009, when they lost to Leinster in the infamous Bloodgate quarter-final. Hopper's route to the top has taken him via Cardiff University, Manly, Plymouth and the Pirates in Penzance. In this era of academies and talent identification, he has somewhat bucked the trend.
But Hopper is making up for lost time. His deceiving hip-swerve, quick feet and bold ambition have already made him a favourite at The Stoop. "It was tough when I first came in because I was out injured for a little while and I was trying to force my way in but I have been very fortunate to play in some of the big games this year," Hopper said. "It has been one hell of an experience for me.
"I got into it a little bit late because I went a different route. My ambition always to get to the top level and play in the Premiership. I always had a lot of belief in my own ability and I thought at some stage in my career I could do that and Quins gave me the opportunity.
"All these big games, the two Toulouse games, the Premiership games over Christmas, are all new experiences for me. It's very exciting to be part of the squad at the moment."
Hopper stands 5ft 10in tall and weighs just over 14 stone but he is quick, elusive and bold. He fits right into the way Harlequins boss Conor O'Shea wants his men to play their rugby. Hopper created Harlequins' brightest moment in their bruising home defeat to Toulouse, launching a counter-attack from inside his own 22 and then executing an audacious back-of-the-hand offload.
Against Gloucester in the last round, Hopper helped launch the attack that led to him scoring Harlequins' first try, which he finished with a glorious sidestep. Hopper traces that side of his game back to his spell with Manly, after he and Ellie - then his girlfriend, now his wife - had decided to go to Australia after finishing university.
"I bowled up to the club one day, contacted the manager to say that I was over from England and ask if I could join in," Hopper recalls. "They got me down to training and I played about 15 first grade games in the year I was there. It was a great experience. I played one game alongside George Smith and Wycliff Palu.
"To come from university and play alongside those guys was pretty special. They are a very good club and the coach when I was there was Phil Blake, the rugby league legend who is now involved with Australia and the Western Force. Getting to work with Phil on my skills and on my defence helped me a lot and made me better. It comes with the weather. You are able to fling the ball around a lot and the game is very quick."
Hopper had wanted to stay on but a bout of meningitis scuppered those plans and he returned home to join Plymouth in 2008 and then the Pirates. The biggest game of his career before this season was the Championship play-off final last May, when the Pirates were beaten by Worcester.
Hopper knew he was joining Harlequins at that point but was still one of the outstanding Pirates on show. Now, he is preparing for a decisive Heineken Cup showdown. Harlequins and Saracens are the only two English clubs left with a realistic chance of making the knockout stages. Hopper believes Quins can fly the flag.
Even if Toulouse beat Gloucester tomorrow, a Harlequins win would be enough to secure their passage as one of the best group runners-up. "This is a big game for the club," Hopper said. "The good thing about the way we are playing at the moment is that everyone is very confident with what we are trying to do.
"Even though we weren't winning going in to that last 10 minutes against Gloucester it just didn't enter the boys' minds. You get a good sense on the pitch of when you are going to win, when you know you are going to win. More often than not it has gone our way this season."
But that does not mean Harlequins will take anything for granted in Ireland, despite Connacht heading into the game on the back of 14 straight defeats. Hopper said: "They aren't doing too well at the moment but they showed when they came to The Stoop what they can do. They can be a dangerous team and we know that."
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