Hooper, Smith prepare for head-to-head
May 12, 2013
Michael Hooper is the Wallabies' incumbent openside flanker © Getty Images
Hooper's resurgent New South Wales Waratahs host Smith's table-topping Brumbies in Sydney after recording back-to-back victories over the Southern Kings and the Stormers, and the former Brumbies teammates are preparing for a key head-to-head battle. Hooper is Australia's incumbent openside flanker after finishing last year's season-ending Test against Wales in Cardiff, but, with just 13 caps to his credit compared with Smith's record 110, the Waratahs No. 7 very much will be filling the role of apprentice versus the breakaway master at ANZ Stadium.
Smith, 32, is in vintage form on his short-term Brumbies deal, prompting the Australian Rugby Union to bend rules to clear the way for the veteran to play in the three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions before returning to his Japanese club. But Hooper, who grew up on Sydney's northern beaches, like Smith, is unconcerned. "You don't read into it, as tough as what it is," Hooper said after the Waratahs' 21-15 win over the Stormers on Saturday night. "I was in Canberra in [Smith's] last year in Australia [in 2009]. He's one of the reasons I went down there - as a mentor for me - so it's exciting to come up against him. You want to be picked on form and you want to be challenging against the best, and it would be all the more sweet if you could beat someone like him."
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans will undoubtedly be in the stands for one last look at a host of Test hopefuls the day before he names his preliminary 25-man squad for the Lions series. Deans, who will add another six players on June 11, has hailed Smith, Hooper and Queensland Reds breakaway Liam Gill as "once-in-a-generation" openside flankers; he said the decision about who to start against the Lions in the first Test on June 22 would be one of his biggest selection pickles.
Waratahs and Wallabies prop Benn Robinson, meanwhile, welcomed the competition for national team starting spots from one to through to 15 as healthy. "In that No. 7 position, it's great for Australian rugby union to have a stalwart like George Smith playing some really good footy and a player like 'Hoops', who is absolutely on fire at the moment and is probably worth two players out there," Robinson said.
With so much on the line, the derby is likely to be played with Test-like intensity. The Waratahs' victory over the Stormers kept alive their finals hopes while the Brumbies collected four points for the bye to remain 11 points clear of their eighth-placed rivals on the Super Rugby ladder after round 13. "It's a must-win match for us," Robinson said. "I suppose they've got the wood over us the past couple of years, and this year especially, so we'll be looking to get a win. If we keep winning and keep putting four or five points on the board each week, then hopefully we can still do it, still top the conference. I think we're a chance so we'll hold onto that."
Michael Hooper, George Smith or Liam Gill: who would you pick as the Wallabies' No. 7 against the British & Irish Lions? Leave a comment below to join the conversation.
Israel Folau starred for the Waratahs against the Stormers at Allianz Stadium (video available only in Australia)
In the wake of another perfect November series, Monday Maul talks to NZRU CEO Steve Tew about the constant demand for perfection
The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa
The Wallabies showed flair in Dublin, but they still have a way to go if they are to do more than make up the numbers at the World Cup, writes Greg Growden
England broke their losing streak, but this was not them clawing their way back among the best, writes Tom Hamilton