Hooper shoots down doubters ahead of Rebels clash

NSW captain Michael Hooper shot down questions over his team’s passion for the jersey ahead of their must-win clash with the Rebels this week, saying they are not just “training for a pay cheque”.

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The Waratahs are battling through their worst start to the season since 2012, having banked just one win from four games and with an average losing margin of 19 points across three consecutive defeats.

Hooper knows how it looks, and he interrupted a journalist’s question about the paucity of trophies in the cabinet at team headquarters this week to snuff out questions about the players’ intent.

“Do you mean are we just training for a pay cheque?” Hooper asked.

“We walk through that part [the trophy cabinet] of our building every morning and it is empty. It sucks, mate. We want more stuff in there.

“The Vickerman trophy [for the winner of the Brumbies-Waratahs derby] had one hand on it at half-time, I thought it was our best half of rugby this year, then we let it slip.

“It’s been sour change rooms. You want to turn that around. We need to start getting that confidence and belief we can do it. A win’s going to go a long way to helping that.”

The Waratahs flew to Melbourne on Thursday afternoon with reason to feel optimistic about their chances of returning with the Weary Dunlop Shield. Their Test five-eighth, Bernard Foley, was on the plane and is a confirmed starter for the first time this season.

Hooper said he was happy for Foley, after the playmaker endured a worrying few weeks dealing with lingering concussion symptoms.

“It’s such a weird thing for him that his body’s fine other than upstairs, for him to come back and have that confidence, he’s training really well,” he said.

“[For us] it’s great to have his head out there, leading us around, and his experience in the tough games, shortening up, flattening up, and [launching] our attacking game off him.”

Foley is just one of a raft of changes in the Waratahs back line, with Test halfback Nick Phipps benched, Israel Folau moved to fullback and an entirely new midfield combination of David Horwitz and Rob Horne replacing Folau and Super Rugby rookie Irae Simone.

Hooper said the mass shake-up will make it hard to tell if Foley’s return alone has made a defining difference, but it was obvious the NSW captain was reassured by the No.10’s return.

“Depending on how this game goes it’s going to be a big tell,” Hooper said.

“Both [Foley] and Bryce [Hegarty] are different players, Bryce is still growing into that role of barking, leading guys around the park and really owning that quarterback position. [Foley] does embrace that belief that he’s guiding the team around and that’s what we need from the 10s.”

In another selection talking point, highly regarded young lock Ned Hanigan was named to cover for injured No.6 Jack Dempsey. Hooper compared Hanigan to former Waratahs and Wallabies back-rower Rocky Elsom and said his workrate was second to none. But with the Rebels fielding the same back-row combination they used to trouble the Chiefs last week in Jordy Reid, Colby Fainga’a and Amanaki Mafi, he cautioned that building attacking momentum would be a job for the entire team at AAMI Park.

“While we want Ned to be really tough and strong over the ball, those [Rebels] guys seemed to pop up in the right areas a lot last week, and it really took the Chiefs until the 70-minute mark to work that out,” Hooper said.

A shortened turnaround for their round five clash may not give NSW fans great comfort but it is clear the Waratahs want to prove they are better than has been suggested by their poor season start.

“No one wants to win more than us. We’re working really hard. We just need to play,” Hooper said.

“Short turnarounds are great because you can really put it into practice. It sucks when you have to sit, wait and talk about all the stuff that’s been, when you can look forward and say ‘let’s do it this Friday’.”