Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – If Jake White still doesn’t believe in the
merits of fetchers, how ironic that the soaring fortunes of Michael Hooper have
played a key role in the Brumbies’ slightly unexpected Super Rugby success thus
far in 2012.
The 21-year-old open-sider was again very close to the heart
of the Canberra-based outfit’s latest victory, a genuinely impressive 37-25
away triumph over the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday after trailing by an
ominous 25-16 at one stage.
By bagging a full house of five points from the match, the
Brumbies, coached by South Africa’s World Cup-winning White, also went a long
way to sparing Aussie blushes in the competition, as they at least look
currently less like “illegitimate” occupiers of third spot on the overall
Even though they are still ahead of the fourth-placed
Stormers purely on tournament rules, despite being a point worse off, they do
currently look more credibly placed among the leading pack after moving to 44
points and seven victories from 11 fixtures.
Friday’s encounter at the Cake Tin was just the first of seven
games in Week 13 so there will be plenty of upheaval on the log, but they now
have a comfortable enough cushion over other contenders for the playoffs to
preclude anyone leapfrogging them yet anyway.
Happily also for the Brumbies, they have extended their
Aussie conference lead over champions the Reds: the gap is now 13 points, even
if the men from Queensland are heavily fancied to pick up another five points
themselves in hosting the rock-bottom Lions on Saturday before heading
southward to tackle the very Brumbies.
And as pundit Naas Botha observed in the SuperSport studio,
the Brumbies’ domination of the conference probably increases the likelihood of
more South African teams squeezing through the six-team playoffs funnel.
It is to White’s credit that his charges continue to ride so
high, despite starting the season looking notably short of true superstar names
and having some injury woes in key positions.
Just for example, the long-term loss of regular flyhalf
Christian Lealiifano recently seemed a serious torpedo strike to the team’s
hull, but Zack Holmes, just another of their “born in the Nineties” brigade,
delivered a performance of admirable poise at No 10 against the ‘Canes,
including a near-flawless record off the kicking tee.
They have kept their collective structure, discipline,
stamina and just as crucially spirit.
This was hardly better demonstrated in Wellington than by
Hooper’s livewire showing in the No 7 flank shirt.
He was all over the place for the cause, his commitment
including a try-saving, corner-flag tackle on rampaging lock Jason Eaton which
saw him smack his head sickeningly and get up wobbling like Bambi, but simply
shrug off the effects and resume his lustre.
Hooper doesn’t resemble certain standout Australian fetchers
of recent or current vintage like Phil Waugh and David Pocock, in that he isn’t
as monster-shouldered or quite as nuggety from head to toe.
For one thing, he surrenders eight kilograms in weight to
someone like Wallaby incumbent Pocock although he is bound to bulk up further
as he gets a little older.
But he offers just as much nuisance value on the deck and is
a particularly clever, elusive ball-carrier who doesn’t only rely on a bashing
style to gain yards.
With the Reds’ 19-year-old Liam Gill also firmly in the
spotlight for all the right reasons, it is clear that an Aussie culture of
producing world-class open-siders simply continues, even if the premier,
broader factory in loose forwards remains arguably the property of South Africa.
Hooper? Certainly more use to Jake than just to grab him his
lager from the fridge ... although you have to wonder whether a post-match concussion
probe could keep him off the park for a couple of unfortunate weeks.