Why Michael Hooper is the Tahs' best ever Super Rugby forward

The Super Rugby tournament is not even a month old, and the pressure is already starting to show.

Twenty minutes into the Waratahs' match against the Sharks in Durban, New South Wales captain Michael Hooper was slumped near his own try-line. He had just made several tackles as the Sharks charged downfield; teammates had given their opponents extra attacking opportunities by infringing at the breakdown, but still he made it back to provide support.

Then referee Jaco Peyper stopped proceedings, as he wanted to tell Hooper that one more infringement would see a Waratahs player pointed to the sinbin. Hooper, staggering towards the goalposts, was pursued by Peyper.

Peyper, noticing that Hooper appeared to be out on his feet, asked: "Captain, you okay?"

A bent-over Hooper mumbled something that sounded eerily like: "I'm [cough, splutter, expletive deleted] knackered."

Peyper smiled and replied "You're knackered. Okay," before telling the skipper that he had better warn his players to be on their best behaviour.

Hooper eventually got back his breath, composing himself enough to provide a captain's speech. No Waratahs player went to the bin.

As this was the Waratahs' second game of the year, one wouldn't normally expect a player to be so exhausted so early in a match. Last round, maybe. Not second round.

But this moment was more a reminder of how much this player puts in, how seriously he takes his responsibilities, and how he is the heart and soul of one football team. In the Super Rugby ranks, there is no more dedicated, focused and energetic performer than Michael Hooper.

Durban provided a telling example of how crucial Hooper is to the Waratahs. For the first 20 minutes, he had attempted to do everything at breakdown and set-piece time, so he was justifiably knackered. Not for long. For the next hour, Hooper was in a class of his own. He ensured the Waratahs left Durban for South America with something. Two points from a draw is better than nothing.

While other senior Waratahs were either hurt or off their game, Hooper knew he had to go the extra level. He had to as Bernard Foley, apart from his excellent late sideline conversion, was out of sorts; Israel Folau was going through the motions; and Kurtley Beale was on the sideline in agony with bung ribs. The skipper had to pick up the slack. Not surprisingly Hooper was involved in the defining moment, when, during the second half, he outpaced three Sharks defenders to score from 45 metres out.

Such a colossal effort is nothing new for Hooper, who in the past year or two has also developed into a quality leader. He knows how to deal with referees, and commands respect from teammates and foes. He has poise. He invariably makes a difference. Without him, the Waratahs and Wallabies each would be a far inferior brand.

In Brumbyland, they still rue letting Hooper go. It is sometimes forgotten that Hooper began his representative career in Canberra, straight out of school spending three seasons with the Brumbies before being lured home to Sydney in 2013.

Stephen Larkham even revealed last year that Hooper was 'the one that got away'. In an interview with the "Canberra Times", the then Brumbies coach said that Hooper "was an outstanding player when he was with us".

Hooper left only because then head Brumbies coach Jake White "had a vision of having big back-rowers, and Michael Hooper doesn't fit that mould".

"He went to the Waratahs and flourished ... as a captain, he's one of the best captains I've seen in any jersey. David Pocock came in at the Brumbies and you wouldn't change that for the world. But [Hooper] is certainly one that got away," Larkham said.

That's an honest admission, but also disconcerting considering that one Sydney newspaper recently listed White as a candidate to take over from Michael Cheika as Wallabies coach after the Rugby World Cup in 2019. Surely Australian Rugby is not going that badly that it would consider even for one second someone who under-estimated Hooper's capabilities. Then again...

It wasn't long after joining the Waratahs that Hooper was elevated to leadership status. Leading the Waratahs to their only Super Rugby title in 2014, Hooper is just one of four survivors of that final-winning lineup who appeared in Durban last weekend.

Until Sekope Kepu returns, he is the only Waratahs forward who remains from the 2014 finals starting lineup. Wycliff Palu, Stephen Hoiles, Jacques Potgieter, Kane Douglas, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Benn Robinson have all departed.

So there is an enormous responsibility on Hooper in guiding the next generation. He handles that with aplomb, as evidenced once again at Kings Park. Similarly, he is a leader on the training paddock, refusing ever to drop a gear, and committing himself to all areas of the team preparation. Proper preparation is clearly paramount as he is rarely sidelined.

Hooper is one many willingly follow because he always puts in. He revitalises those around him. That's why I rate him not just the Waratahs' most dynamic backrower, but also their best forward of the Super Rugby era.