The reaction to Australia’s record defeat to Wales at the Rugby World Cup has been swift and brutal.
Much of it has focused on two men in particular, coach Eddie Jones and former captain Michael Hooper.
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When we say “former” captain, we mean the man who was appointed to co-captain Australia alongside James Slipper in the Rugby Championship, just two months out from this World Cup.
Hooper did sustain a terribly untimely calf injury ahead of the first match against South Africa, but was still a baffling discard when Jones named his 33-man squad to take to the World Cup.
A youth movement in professional sport is one thing, it is something else altogether to pick a team of “kids against men” – as former Wallaby Stephen Hoiles put it – in the fierce, brutal physicality of top-level rugby union.
Hooper did concede he had a series of small setbacks with his calf in the lead-up to the World Cup, but declared he was “100 per cent fine” by the time of the opening group game against Georgia.
His Wallaby axing meant he was a late addition to Stan Sport’s commentary team for the tournament and that sure led to some awkward exchanges after the record 40-6 annihilation against the Welsh.
“Hoops, I’ve got to say, I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be a Wallabies supporter watching this just wondering what a few hard heads and a bit of experience like yourself might’ve made to this campaign,” host Nick McArdle said to get the awkwardness underway.
“It might not have been the difference, but it might’ve been a difference?”
McArdle then threw to dual international Allana Ferguson to respond, sparing Hooper any more blushes, and Ferguson did not hold back.
“I certainly think so, I think it’s been a big talking point,” she replied. “I think there could’ve been a different balance between the youth and experience.
“I mean, the man sitting beside us (Hooper), I have no idea why he isn’t over there playing.
“But that’s the way it’s panned out unfortunately, the way that the narrative’s gone.
“I think we all feel pretty depressed about how it’s panned out, sad for the Wallabies, sad for rugby union in Australia at the moment.
“But they were completely dismantled by Wales. It’s a sad time for rugby.”
In a later exchange as the autopsy into Australia’s performance continued, McArdle said: “I’m not going to ask Hoops because it’s too difficult for you Hoops, but how much would a larger group of experienced players have helped?”
This time Hooper did blush and manage a half-smile, before another former Wallaby James Horwill jumped in, stating the current squad didn’t have the “lived experience” needed for a World Cup campaign.
If it feels like Hooper has been around for an eternity, he has.
First picked for the Wallabies as a 20-year-old, Hooper went on to set all sorts of records, becoming the youngest skipper in well over half a century and the fastest Wallaby to 100 Tests along the way.
But he is still only 31 years old and surely could have helped this embryonic Wallabies squad.
Of course the glare of the spotlight is on Jones most of all, the man brought in to save Australian rugby, who instead has overseen the worst World Cup performance ever.
Yes he put a focus on youth, but as Hoiles stated, that is no guarantee of success down the track and these defeats could in fact scar the young Wallabies for the remainder of their careers.
“The previous coach got blamed, the coach before him got blamed, the current coach will get blamed and deserves to come under criticism,” said Hoiles, who played 16 Tests for the Wallabies and featured at the 2007 World Cup.
“I feel for the players. Some of these guys, they’re not ready for Test rugby yet and that’s not meant to be mean or personal about it, too many of them haven’t played well enough in Super Rugby.
“I look at this side, and I don’t like to use this word lightly, but I see a bunch of kids against men. We took our men out of this campaign and said ‘let’s put more kids in and let’s let them learn from this and they’ll get better from it’.
“Sadly they might not get better. I lost a quarter-final (in 2007). I’m scarred from losing a quarter-final. I was 26, I thought I’d get another crack, I didn’t.
“Some of these guys may not recover from this.”
Hoiles added the results have been largely predictable based on Australia’s form, adding it is the Wallabies’ “darkest day … it does feel like that, in our living history for sure”.
For his part, Hooper did his best to try to remain positive and find any semblance of hope to cling to in the wake of a result and performance that thoroughly deflated most.
In one of the saddest moments of the post-mortem, he demonstrated his leadership traits when he stated “I’ve still got my players’ hat on. I’m part of this team and this loss. I was only in here (with the team) six or seven games ago”.
Sonny Bill Williams, the two-time World Cup winning All Black who has shown a real affinity for the Wallabies during this tournament, couldn’t wait to stick his sizeable boot into Jones.
“I feel for these boys, I feel for the fans,” he said on Stan. “I’m going to keep it real here, they were up against it from the start.
“Where we are right now, questions need to be asked, from selections to the mind games Eddie’s been playing with these kids, these young men.
“It was evident, there’s a guy in the studio back home (Hooper) who should be here right now.
“The proof is in the pudding, 40-6 is really embarrassing, and I feel for these kids, they’re going to carry this on for the rest of their careers and feel this.
“But if I’m a player, I’m not following a guy that’s sitting having a meeting with another national team, potentially looking for another job, days before you’re hopping on the plane to come to this World Cup.”
That last comment was in reference to the fact Jones reportedly had a job interview with Japan days out from the World Cup, which the coach has staunchly and angrily refuted.
Earning even more credit for flying the team flag in the face of overwhelming failure, Hooper passionately defended and even supported Jones.
“I’m going to throw a bit of a counter to Sonny,” he said. “A lot is going to come on Eddie and maybe there’s some fairness in that.
“But I’ve been in the environment, I’ve been in the camp. No one is up for more hours than Eddie. Eddie is up until 11pm thinking about how to make the Wallabies team better and he’s waking up at 3am answering messages about how to make the Wallabies team better.
“There’s no lack of desire from that guy to make that team the best it can be.
“It hasn’t worked out that way so yes people will come under fire – players first, coaches, coaching staff, the greater, wider rugby community in Australia.
“So let’s just pull the brakes a bit off Eddie.
“I hate seeing people booed regardless of who they are. You know that people are putting themselves out there, players, coaches, they’re putting their nuts on the line.
“Let’s not have a crack at the bloke.”
While all and sundry know Australia’s World Cup campaign is now over, Hooper was clinging desperately to a mathematical possibility.
If Fiji – which has already beaten Australia – loses to relative minnows Portugal and Georgia without a bonus point, the Wallabies could stay alive.
“Forever the optimist. Go Georgia, go Portugal, coming up against Fiji,” Hooper said to close this sad chapter.
“Hoping there’s a chance.”