Michael Hooper is not Richie McCaw. But he is starting to resemble the former All Black captain in crucial areas- including a similar dynamic approach to back-row play, in the way he dictates his team's direction and how he cleverly works away in manipulating referees.
There were few better rugby skippers than McCaw, the ultimate rugby leader in matching on-field dominance with an ability to inspire, defend and represent his teammates in every circumstance- good or bad. He also irritated opposing teams and their followers for supposedly being allowed to get away with far too much. This master pilferer was a genius at keeping the referee on side.
Hooper is steadily rising to that McCaw level of excellence, to the extent I would have no hesitation in taking the Wallabies leadership off the out-of-form Stephen Moore right now and giving it to the Waratahs skipper- so that he has two good seasons to properly prepare himself as Australia's captain at the next Rugby World Cup.
The many shining attributes of the Hooper game was on show during the Waratahs' win over the Rebels on Sunday evening. Hooper's man-of-the-match status was indisputable, as he was easily the most penetrative player, making endless breaks, stealing so much possession at the breakdown, while he constantly tried to get his team back on track after an irritating opening quarter when their discipline was abominable. This game particularly showed that Hooper has matured in referee management.
There were several intriguing exchanges with Angus Gardner where Hooper carefully attempted to get the Australian referee on side, but also knew when to stand up for his men.
Between the sixth and 13th minute, three Waratahs forwards Will Skelton, Tolu Latu and Dean Mumm were penalised for infringements at the breakdown or being offside in general play.
Sensing someone could soon be headed to the sinbin, Hooper came running in, and before Gardner could open his mouth, the Waratahs captain said: "Can I just say before you do because I know what you're going to say... I will talk to him (Mumm). It's the best I can do... That's another annoying penalty."
So, confirmation from Hooper that Gardner had made the right decision. As Hooper ran back to say something to Mumm, Gardner, like any good referee made certain he got in the last word, telling Hooper that his patience was waning.
Shortly after there were two more infringements involving Waratahs forwards- one of which saw Latu sent to the sinbin. The penalty count was now 7-nil in the Rebels favour, and Gardner told Hooper that due to the 'sheer number of penalties...can you have a chat to the guys please?"
Hooper made a confession.
"I've talked to them twice. So, I'm trying my best. I'm trying my best. But it's not happening at the moment. It's over eagerness."
After several muffled words, Hooper, pointing to the other end of the field, said: "But it's frustrating when there's other things like knock-ons..."
Gardner replied: "I didn't see that."
Seeds of doubt. Gardner, who had an exemplary game and is easily Australia's best referee in recent years, continued to bear down hard on the Waratahs, sending another player Bernard Foley to the sinbin during the second half. But gradually several border-line decisions went the home team's way. One important wayward NSW lineout throw was missed, as was a forward pass that led to a Waratahs try, while the home team received five of the last eight penalties. That happens when the team regains its attacking mojo, picking up the pace in the second half, and doesn't get caught at the breakdown. Gardner was taken out of the equation.
More importantly what Hooper's exchanges with Gardner showed was that he is now able to talk rationally to those in charge. One could comprehend if the captain had completely lost his cool and vented his anger towards the referee- as after all it has been the most frustrating of seasons for the Waratahs where Hooper has too often been made to feel like a one-man band. While Hooper has constantly performed, many of his teammates have not been up to standard, endlessly making unprofessional mistakes.
Then to try to keep your composure when the team is repeatedly penalised for silly indiscretions takes some resolve. That comes with experience, and authority which arises from convincing all that with David Pocock away on a sabbatical, there is no disputing who is Australia's premier No 7.
Yes, Hooper is now ready to be the Test captain- a fair reward for being far and away Australia's standout performer in this year's flawed Super Rugby season.