SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia captain Michael Hooper was keen to get the Wallabies’ international season started as his team left for South Africa on Sunday for their first match in the Rugby Championship.
The Wallabies departed early for the fixture in Johannesburg on July 20, with coach Michael Cheika eager to use the two weeks to acclimatise to the Highveld and build combinations in his first full squad of the season.
“Really excited to get away,” Hooper told reporters as the team departed from Sydney airport. “We’ve been doing some real hard yards up until this point.
“It’s the first time we’re really getting the full squad together, the Brumbies coming in today, and getting on the plane together and going to work.
“Everyone is so excited about the job.”
The job includes focussing on the Rugby World Cup in Japan, which starts in a little over two months, with the Wallabies drawn in Pool D with Six Nations champions Wales, Fiji, Uruguay and Georgia.
The Wallabies made a surprising run to the final four years back in England, but have been locked in a downward spiral ever since, having won just 17 of their 42 tests since their 34-17 loss to the All Blacks at Twickenham.
Last year they lost nine of their 13 tests, while their Super Rugby teams have struggled to impose themselves on the competition from arguably the weakest conference.
The ACT Brumbies’ run to this year’s semi-finals, however, has provided a flicker of hope the Wallabies could regain some form.
Cheika selected his Rugby Championship squad on current form and rewarded the Brumbies, with recalls for prop James Slipper and flyhalf Christian Lealiifano, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2016. [nL8N24504R]
“Fantastic story right,” Hooper said of Lealiifano’s return to the side after a three-year absence. “It’s just another chapter in that book.
“I’m so excited to see him back in the team. Every team I’ve been a part of a side with him, he adds something so much on and off the field.
“A great reward for a top season.”
The Wallabies’ match against the Springboks at Ellis Park is part of an abridged Rugby Championship and Hooper added that he was looking forward to playing a test there for the first time, where he expected a hostile reception from the crowd.
“I’ve never played at Ellis Park in a test and it is a great challenge,” he said. “It is a place that could replicate some of the stuff we might see in the back end of the year.
“It’ll be warm, it’s an afternoon game and it could be hostile.
“There’s so many carrots throughout the year to go for and strive for, it’s a great opportunity to be a part of.”
(Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)