Head-on collision for Tahs-bound Hooper
Brumbies player Michael Hooper at training. Photo: Jay Cronan
MICHAEL Hooper is building a rugby reputation by fearlessly sticking his head in places it shouldn't go, but he was just seven-years-old when doctors told him he may never play the sport again.
On the eve of one of the biggest matches of his Super Rugby career - against his future team the NSW Waratahs - the ACT Brumbies flanker has revealed the origin of the scar that runs across the top of his skull.
Hooper's jaw was broken at birth. It wasn't detected until he was four.
When he was seven, surgeons reconstructed the jaw with pieces of bone from his rib, cutting through the top of his head to avoid leaving scars on his face.
It was major surgery on his developing body and specialists were cautious about whether he should return to rugby. Hooper missed one season, before his mum Raeleen relented and allowed him to return to the field - wearing headgear as extra protection.
''As a mother I did want him to wear headgear the first year he went back, but he wasn't impressed and it lasted one year and it never came back again,'' Raeleen Hooper said.
''We couldn't keep him off the paddock, he's got an older brother and they've rumbled since day one.
''My husband played rugby so I guess it's in your blood.''
The Hoopers have always been a tight-knit family. Raeleen and David Hooper travel to most games to watch their youngest son and will be at Canberra Stadium tomorrow night.
Hooper originally moved from Sydney to Canberra with older brother Richard when they were both in the ACT Brumbies Academy. Hooper's motivation to join the Brumbies was to learn from one of the game's greatest openside flankers, George Smith.
Family was a ''big factor'' in his decision to leave the Brumbies for the Waratahs next season.
''I'm close to my brother, we had a great time living together in Canberra and we still reminisce about those times,'' Hooper said.
''I spoke with mum and dad the most [about the decision]. But mostly it was a personal decision, everyone has a different opinion and you've got to do what's best for yourself.
''It was tough, but it's a good problem to have - being able to choose where your future is. It's quite stressful as well.''
Hooper, still only 20, is having a breakout Super Rugby season.
His aggressive play at the breakdown has earned him high praise, Johannesburg Lions coach John Mitchell describing him as ''world class'' after the Brumbies secured a 34-20 triumph at Ellis Park.
Hooper announced two weeks ago he was defecting to the Waratahs, but said he remains determined to put his body on the line for the Brumbies for the remainder of the 2012 Super Rugby season.
''It is a bit weird playing against them this week,'' Hooper said.
''I want to keep my spot in the starting Brumbies team and that's my focus this year … you play for different reasons each week and the Waratahs are just another opposition.''
After spending his first two years trying to find his feet, the former Australian under-20s player of the year says he finally has the confidence to play at the highest level. In just nine games this season he's already being talked about as a potential Wallaby, possibly as early as this year.
That's why the Brumbies will be so disappointed to farewell him at the end of the season.
He admits he was in awe of high-profile opponents like Ma'a Nonu when he was thrust into Super Rugby in 2010.
''It's intimidating, but the longer you play you realise their just normal guys and not supermen running around on the field,'' he said.
''You get more confident in yourself and the guys around you.''