Waratahs place faith in peak fitness
August 2, 2014
Michael Hooper says there are no excuses for the Waratahs ahead of the Super Rugby final © Getty Images
Inspirational captain Michael Hooper is backing the New South Wales Waratahs' supreme fitness to come to the fore in what's tipped to be a torrid Super Rugby final with the Crusaders on Saturday night.
Hard-nosed coach Michael Cheika "flogged" the Waratahs in pre-season, ordering his charges to run up hills in the extreme heat of summer and train until they dropped.
But the indefatigable Tahs' unrivalled conditioning was never more telling than in the tense second half of last week's semi-final triumph when every NSW player desperately defended their line to hold the Brumbies out. After weathering the second-half storm, the Waratahs powered home in the closing stages to win 26-8.
It's been a similar story for the past two months, with the super-fit minor premiers winning their previous six games on their eight-match streak by 31, 28, 31, 16, 22 and 28 points respectively over the Queensland Reds, Highlanders, Brumbies, Chiefs, Lions and Rebels.
"The good thing is a lot of our guys have been playing 80 minutes, or 60 minutes, so everyone's in great nick," Hooper said. "That week off two weeks ago helped immensely for a lot of players, so physically we're going great shape into it and that's why it's really exciting. There's no excuses. So you can't look back and think 'what if'. There's no what ifs. You've got to roll into the game and I'm really excited."
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Hooper's personal duel with Crusaders legend Richie McCaw, the widely regarded as the greatest openside flanker the game has seen, shapes as a cracker. Cheika admits he's a big fan of the Kiwi breakaway and still considers the 33-year-old the benchmark No.7 "in McCaw's style of game", but says he wouldn't swap Hooper for the world.
"Hooper's a very different type of player to McCaw," Cheika said. "I love Michael Hooper. I think he's an awesome player, just the energy he brings to games. It's almost like he doesn't care about it but he cares about it unbelievably. He's able to flick between the two and I think that's why he's been able to adapt to being a good captain at such a young age."
The 22-year-old said being able to lean on the likes of assistant coach Nathan Grey, who played in NSW's 2005 finals loss to the Crusaders, veteran back-rower and former Brumbies skipper Stephen Hoiles and vice-captain Adam Ashley-Cooper had helped him grow into the captaincy since Dave Dennis' season-ending knee injury.
"It's been a pretty easy transition for a lot of us in the leadership role is because you've got a lot of great guys around you. You've got a great coaching staff," Hooper said. So that's why it's been a strong year and been a really easy year ... there's a separation between on and off field and that's what's been really positive."