Wallabies’ young captain Michael Hooper is riding the rugby rollercoaster

Alex Broun 7/09/2017
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Michael Hooper makes a break during a Bledisloe Cup match against the All Blacks.

All players who earn the honour of wearing the famous gold jersey never forget their Test debut.

But the Wallabies’ modern Mr Perpetual Motion, and now captain, Michael Hooper, will never forget his – for very different reasons.

It was in Newcastle back in June 2012 against Scotland.

“I remember the build up more than I remember the game itself,” recalls Hooper. “I played a handful of minutes, 10 or 11 at the back end. (It was actually 15 minutes, coming on for Tahs team-mate, Dave Dennis.)

“It was such a quick turnaround. It was Super Rugby two days beforehand and it was a Tuesday night match before we went into three Wales games.”

But what really sticks in Hooper’s mind were the conditions, which were euphemistically described as “atrocious”. It was more like playing in a cyclone – gale force winds, rain and bitter, bitter cold. So cold that flanker David Pocock was diagnosed with hypothermia after the match.

The Scots must have felt right at home.

“We turned up to Newcastle the night before,” continues Hooper, “and waking up the next morning and then just hearing this storm is on the horizon. This one-in-tenyears storm is coming and it’s coming on the night I’m making my debut for the Wallabies!

“I’m sitting on the sideline with a good mate of mine Nick Phipps and just seeing lashings of rain coming over the side of that Newcastle stadium and just thinking, ‘What is going on?’”

What was going on, was Scotland making better use of the conditions, battling to a shock 9-6 victory over the hosts, with scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw landing a penalty goal in the 80th minute to edge the Scots home.

“It was a tough initiation to the international scene but one that I won’t forget that’s for sure,” says Hooper ruefully.

At least he wasn’t freezing on the sidelines: “ASICS have got good jackets, so we were looked after.”

It’s perhaps surprising for someone who made such an inauspicious start to his international career that he has gone on to become one of the first names on the Wallaby team sheet.

Leading from the front: Hooper.

Hooper has appeared in 69 of the 75 Tests the Wallabies have played since that night, starting 64 of the matches with just five coming off the bench. That’s not how it must have seemed it would play out, shivering on the bench that night in Newcastle.

“Rugby is a subjective game,” muses Hooper, “and I think at all ages, whether it’s the top level like us or down in age group levels, you’ve got to be picked by a coach at some stage.

“So all you can do is your perceived best and put yourself out there. And that’s what I’m thinking about doing, and continually trying to do.

“You always want to keep pushing yourself to become a better player and I think about becoming a better player a lot and how I can do that.

“All you can do is keep doing your best. Be happy with what you think your best is and putting that out there – so I give myself the best chance to be selected.”

Hooper has certainly done that – and in August when Stephen Moore announced he would not be continuing in Wallaby gold next year, the 25-year-old from Sydney’s northern beaches was coach Michael Cheika’s obvious choice to take over as captain.

He had already served as skipper for 13 Tests back in 2014 when Moore was injured, has the respect of his team-mates and is consistently among the Wallabies’ best performers.

He also showed he can be strong in a crisis. In 2014 Australia was wracked by crisis after crisis (when isn’t it?), when team-mate and good friend Kurtley Beale was suspended for sending offensive messages to then business manager Di Patston.

The drama then escalated when coach Ewen McKenzie resigned amidst rumours he had an improper relationship with Patston. Hooper was forced to navigate the most difficult path – respectful of McKenzie and supportive of Patston without throwing his friend under the bus.

The then 22-year-old managed it, mostly. After all that drama is he still enjoying his rugby?

“Look I love it, I really enjoy it,” he says, “and I just want many more opportunities in the jersey and to create special memories.”

The Wallabies have momentum on their side.

Unfortunately many of the memories the Wallabies have created in recent seasons have been painful ones. Last year they lost nine of the 15 Tests they played and were blanked 3-0 by England at home, and the All Blacks.

This year hasn’t been much better, losing to Scotland at home and already twice to the All Blacks, although there were signs of improvement in the second Bledisloe Test in Dunedin where Australia lost 35-29.

This weekend they face a must-win Rugby Championship fixture against the Springboks in Perth, where the Wallabies are expecting a protest after the axing of the Western Force. Did I mention crises?

“We were talking about this the other day and rugby is such a rollercoaster,” acknowledges Hooper, “there’s a lot of lows in there. And why everyone does it and why people in Australia love the game is because the highs are so good – so good – you just keep chasing them over and over.

“And yes I’ve been through tough times as a player, which makes the really good ones all the more sweeter. You invest so much of your time and give up a lot of things because you love it so you want to see it be better and you want to experience those really good things.”

The thrill of playing for your country is something Hooper says he will never lose.

“I’m in a very fortunate position,” he says, “I get to turn up for work every day and you are with a bunch of blokes who think pretty like-minded and do something you’re pretty passionate about.

“I’m very lucky, very lucky – and you just want to keep chasing those highs because you know they don’t just affect you – they affect a lot of people as well.”

The fans in the stands for starters – and the dwindling numbers of supporters elsewhere. Hopefully the weather will also play its part this Saturday, unlike that night in Newcastle five years ago.

AROUND THE FRINGES

Working with a sports psychologist this season

We have been working with a leadership coach – a ‘personal developer’ is the term he would probably appreciate more. He’s given myself and others in our team some great little tips and tricks on how to become better people first, and that in turn makes us better leaders.

The responsibility of working with new players coming into the squad

For people who have been in the Wallaby fold for a while – and it is a new group, a lot of new faces – it’s about setting an example, setting a training standard which is indicative of a Wallaby or national set-up.

There are differences being in the Wallabies compared to Super Rugby. To being away from home, even training away, you’re in a camp environment pretty much the whole year. So there are challenges that go along with that.

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Passion for Jebel Ali Dragons burns deep inside Dutchman Neil Verweij, who has been part of the club for all 25 years

Matt Jones 6/09/2017
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The UAE is, by its very nature, short-term, with expatriates constantly coming and going. But one man who is firmly embedded with the roots of a nation officially just 46-years-old is Neil Verweij – affectionately known as ‘Dutchy’ to the many at Jebel Ali Dragons who know and love him.

The Dragons will be celebrating 25 years as a club this season and at the very heart of their existence has been the Dutchman – who moved to Dubai in 1992, the same year the club was officially born.

Spending quarter of a century anywhere is an impressive feat. That Verweij, a man born 5,000 kilometres away and who was a talented footballer in his youth – even earning Netherlands trials – has come to be an integral part of a club which play a sport he’d never heard of when he arrived in the Emirates, seems almost unbelievable.

But then, the thought of Dubai becoming a modern super city the envy of the world also have seemed pretty impossible 25 years ago.

“I came in September or October ‘92 and planned to stay for two years,” says Verweij, an initial plan still common among today’s new expat arrivals.

He arrived having spent three years in Saudi Arabia, with a nine-month stint in Iraq prior to that.

“I thought it would be a bit of a party time coming from Saudi. A friend went to Dubai at the same time so I came here occasionally at the weekends. They had concerts at the Red Lion, the old Metropolitan Hotel. I thought this was the place to be.

“I came here and the company offered me a temporary position. I went back to Holland, resigned from the mother company, came here in the summer, went back home then moved over.”

Dragons winning an early title at the Dubai Sevens

Dragons winning an early title at the Dubai Sevens

It didn’t take Verweij, then 30, long to settle into Dubai life. He met his wife Michelle, a Londoner, at the end of October at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club through former Dubai Exiles player Gary Harris, who had invited Verweij to a game.

“I knew a Dutch couple and they were close friends. They knew I’d played rugby in Saudi and said Gary was playing in Sharjah at the weekend for Exiles. I went to have a look and had a few drinks. I started talking to her (Michelle) and we’ve been together ever since. Now it’s 25 years later.”

The couple were married the following April, and they have two sons, Thomas, 20, and Ben, 19.

A recruiter for oil and gas firm IPS, it perhaps isn’t surprising Verweij, now 55, is an apt networker. But whereas it seemed like with his early Exiles connections he might join the region’s oldest club, Verweij quickly realised Dragons was his team.

He said: “Gary said to come to Exiles training which was then at Al Awir on a Tuesday. I arrived, got changed. A few boys looked at me strangely. A few older boys asked me some questions like my level, how long had I played for, what uni I went to etc.

“I answered ‘no’ to all the questions and they said ‘this club is not for you’. At that same time Dave Oseman (a former Dragons player and manager) walked by and said ‘that’s the club for you’ and pointed to another pitch where Dragons were training. They’d just started playing social rugby in 1991.”

But by the time Verweij was integrating himself into Dubai life, Dragons had begun to dream bigger and wanted to create a proper club. Plans were formulated earlier in ‘92 and the name Dragons originated after the club was officially formed in the old George and Dragon pub in Bur Dubai.

“On that first day there were 30 boys there. It was a decent team but some just wanted to join a social club. We had games, but scraped teams together. That was October ‘92. They’d set up the social side in late ‘91 but then wanted to form a proper club.”

Today, the average Dubai resident might struggle to decide where to go on a night out, spoilt for choice with a plethora of restaurants, bars and clubs to choose from.

Back at the beginning for Dragons and Verweij, however, nightspot choices were a little bit more limited.

“We had the George and Dragon, Poncho Villas and a nightclub, there was a place called Bolty’s too in Bank Street, which was known for live music. Three or four places,” Verweij says.

“Now there’s hundreds of them. We’d go to the George and Dragon on a Tuesday, play some darts and pool, the DJ there was an English guy, Chris Pike, he was a Dragon player too. It was a Dragons pub. You knew you’d always bump into some Dragons boys.

“A lot of those boys from the early days are still here. Keith Byrne, Simon Fielder, Paul Smith. We were just Dragons back then. Jebel Ali came in in 2010 when JA Hotels and Resorts came on board. That was when we had the first official home ground. That was the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Dragons and players pictured at the final game at Dubai Exiles' old Al Awir ground in 2008

Dragons and players pictured at the final game at Dubai Exiles’ old Al Awir ground in 2008

Dragons were part of the inaugural UAE club league introduced in the mid ‘90s, along with Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Ain, Sharjah, Exiles, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. Dubai Hurricanes and Arabian Knights were to follow, as well as Dubai Tigers, actually a spin-off of Dragons.

As well as being a transient place, the UAE rugby scene is also a bit of a merri-go-round with players switching clubs regularly. But for Verweij, he’s always been a one-club man – even when he was not playing for a period.

“I’ll always be a Dragon,” he said. “A lot of guys went down to Abu Dhabi because they offered them different bits and pieces. I’ve never been a great player anyway but besides that I could have joined other clubs socially. But I’ve always been a one club man.

“It really is one big family. I’m very passionate about the Dragons, and that’s from a Dutchman who’s a footballer. They set me up in Dubai. They set up my social life, I met so many friends because of the club.”

That a footballer from a country which coined ‘Total Football’ and produced the likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Johan Neeskens ended up so entrenched in the oval-shaped ball is a mystery in itself.

“I was always a footballer, being from the Netherlands,” said Verweij, who hails from the tiny town of Alphen aan den Rijn, just south of Amsterdam.

“I was quite a talented goalkeeper. I had the talent and played at a decent level, third or fourth division for a team called AVV Alphen. At 15 I was invited to the junior Dutch squad but you go out with your mates and that’s it.

“It wasn’t until I went to Saudi that I first got involved with rugby. I bumped into a client at work and he asked me what I was doing at the weekends. I said ‘sleeping’ as in those days it was a six-day week.

“He took me to training even though I had no clue at all about rugby. I saw the ball and thought it was an American football. I was running forward trying to get them to throw it to me like a quarterback, and the guys were on their knees laughing at me.”

Verweij’s first rugby team was the Khobar Eagles, who still feature at the Dubai Sevens.

After an arduous introduction to the game in Saudi, however, Verweij found his feet as a prop forward for Dragons in Dubai. Formed as a social side, by the mid-90s the club had started to shift focus and harbour more serious ambitions of success.

At that point, around 1997 or ’98, Verweij returned to his football roots, happily admitting he was not talented enough to keep playing as the club grew around him.

But he still kept up to date with Dragons news and in touch with the lifelong friends he’d made, like founders John Fish and a man simply known as ‘Blaster’, as well as Byrne, Fielder, Smith and many others.

“We were way below in the early 90s. We were happy to win the Sevens or a tournament, but then we became a bit more serious and got our first coach, Andy Jones,” recalls Verweij.

“It was too serious for me and that’s when I diverted back to football, with the vets at Dubai FC. It started becoming more serious with two trainings per week and unless you made both you didn’t play on the Friday. I was busy with work and realised it was getting serious so I went back to my roots.

“I left in around 97 to go play football again and I knew they were going to get big with the coaching finally coming in and the good players too. I realised they could become something special.”

He remained a follower from afar, but an encounter with long-time friend and Dragons stalwart Matt ‘Fester’ Seale five years ago brought him back into the fold on a more permanent basis.

“I came back to rugby about five years ago, 2012, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he added.

“I’d always kept up to date with what the club was doing, what time the games are, I would go to the Dubai Sevens, occasionally see a familiar face.

“They would always ask me what I was doing and ask me to come back. When I did come back I wondered to myself ‘why didn’t I do this sooner?’. I think if I was to change anything it would be to never leave originally.”

A collection of early Dragons' jerseys

A collection of early Dragons’ jerseys

Upon his return, Verweij played vets rugby which in turn led to a coaching role, assuming responsibility for Dragons 3rds, in 2015/16. Despite being in his early fifties, he remained an active on-field option as a player-coach, leading Dragons to the final of the inaugural Community League, where Dragons lost to Beaver Nomads 34-23.

Verweij featured in that game, which turned out to be his final outing as a player. He stayed on as coach though and, undeterred, led Dragons back to the Community League final this April at the maiden UAE Rugby Finals Day at Dubai Sports City.

It was a much happier finale too as they beat fierce rivals Harlequins 3rds 22-13 – an achievement Verweij holds among his finest.

“It was the icing on the cake, especially as we beat the Quins who were in all three finals,” he said.

“We lost heavily to them at the start of the season. That was very sweet and talking about it still makes me very emotional, it was very special. Out of all my years at the club that is right up there with one of my most special moments.

“I was dragged out of retirement by Fester to play for the vets (now the thirds). I became third team manager because of Ian Jones, the vets captain at the time, which turned into the thirds.

“When I stopped playing I didn’t want to give it up. I stopped playing after the final against the Beaver Nomads and became full time manager, and we won last year which was unreal.”

As a sign of the esteem in which he is held by the club, Verweij was presented with the prestigious Dragon of Distinction award at the end of season club dinner.

In addition, he was asked by players as well as director of rugby Henry Paul earlier this summer to step up to the plate and become first team manager for the upcoming season, with Johnny MacDonald taking charge of the second team.

Although heavily attached to the third team, he didn’t take much persuading.

“The boys, Henry Paul, Harty (Paul Hart, former DoR and UAE international) and Quinny (chairman Stuart Quinn) asked me if I’d step up,” said Verweij.

“That’s the thing with the club, it doesn’t matter what team you play for, there’s no looking down on someone because they play for the thirds. I’ve been third team manager the last two seasons and now I’m stepping up to become first team manager.

“Again it was emotional, special, being asked to do that. It wasn’t just the coach asking. It was a group of players too. They needed a new team manager and wondered who they’d get. They all said ‘Dutchy’.

“I wanted to know what will be expected of me. I’m emotional and passionate and won’t sit still.”

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Tears at full-time as the Dragons go to the Dogs

Alex Broun 3/09/2017
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St George's Josh Dugan in tears after the loss to the Bulldogs.

The St George Illawarra Dragons had it all to play for coming into the last round of NRL fixtures yesterday.

They were poised in ninth place, just out of the finals series, and faced a regulation fixture against the Bulldogs in Sydney.

The day beforehand all the results they needed to make the top eight had fallen perfectly into place. The North Queensland Cowboys had obligingly fallen to the Broncos and Manly had given Penrith a sound thrashing.

St George enjoyed a far superior points differential to both the Cowboys and the Panthers so a win by any margin would have seen them leap frog both of them into seventh spot and a match up with Manly in the first week of the finals.

And it was all going pretty smoothly midway through the second half as centre Tim Lafai found fullback Matt Dufty who strolled over to pinch the lead. The conversion made it 18-14 with half an hour to play.

The lead could have been even greater as the Dragons crossed the line again minutes later but bad boy Josh Dugan was somehow held up under the black dot by a determined man of the match Will Hopoate.

Hopoate’s tackle was one of the trysavers of the year and although the next set the Bulldogs gave away a penalty and five-eighth Gareth Widdop slotted the penalty to make the lead six points, the momentum started to swing.

Will Hopoate pulls off a miracle try-saver on Josh Dugan.

Will Hopoate pulls off a miracle try-saver on Josh Dugan.

More than almost any other sport rugby league is all about momentum and now it was flowing all the Bulldogs way. Tries to prop Aiden Tolman in the 66th minute and hooker Michael Lichaa in the 73rd minute turned it around and although the Dragons threw everything they had at Canterbury’s line in the final moments, the Bulldogs held firm to run out 26-20 winners.

The disappointment after the final whistle was palpable for the St George players (below) and fans, scarcely able to believe their season had come to an end.

Dugan for one was choking back tears as he was comforted by team mate Nene Macdonald. The loss completed another disappointing season for the once proud Dragons who still remain one of the most successful clubs in Australian rugby league history, with 15 premierships to their name.

But since the Super League war and the merger with the Illawarra Steelers in 1998 to form the new NRL entity, St George Illawarra Dragons, they have won just one premiership, in 2010, when they were coached briefly by the legendary Wayne Bennett, now back with the Broncos.

The pressure will start to build on head coach Paul ‘Mary’ McGregor with the Dragons finishing out of the finals for a second year in a row. Okay if you are the Newcastle Knights, who picked up their third successive wooden spoon, and would dream of finishing anywhere around the eight. But not the once mighty Dragons.

“It shouldn’t have come down to today” said a sullen McGregor at the post match press conference, “but it did, and we let a team who couldn’t score points score 26 on us. Not good enough.” Not the most gracious of losing speeches.

St George fans come to terms with another losing season.

St George fans come to terms with another losing season.

But it was the sort of match where no one won. The winning coach Des Hasler wasn’t in a much better mood as he reflected on what could have been as the Bulldogs, who began the year as one of the premiership favourites, missed out on the finals for the first time in six seasons.

The pressure is also on Hasler with Doggies’ fans and management holding high expectations for the club and there has already been calls for his head.

Hasler flat-batted enquiries about his job security. “I’ve got a contract for (the next) two years” he said, “why wouldn’t I expect (to be coach next year).”

He then rounded on the insistent journalist: “You asked me that earlier in the day. Ease up.”

At the top of the table the Storm continued their imperious form with a 32-6 win over the Raiders and are heavily favoured to win just their third legitimate premiership on October 1. But then this is the NRL – upsets are bound to happen.

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