Out of quarantine and into a new era for Australian rugby, Wallabies centurion and captain Michael Hooper is raring to go in Sunday’s opening Bledisloe Cup match.
Australia takes on New Zealand at Wellington’s Sky Stadium in their first international Test since last year’s World Cup.
Disappointing results from both trans-Tasman sides in Japan have brought new coaching regimes and a broom to sweep through the playing stocks.
Just two of the Wallabies starting against the All Blacks this weekend were on the field for the World Cup quarter-final loss to England last year.
On top of the mass turnover, the Wallabies have never known a Test preparation like it; flown to Christchurch for a fortnight of cooped-up training under New Zealand’s strict quarantine regime.
The release of the squad was confirmed on Saturday morning, but came too late for Australia to enjoy a run out at the ‘caketin’, as Wellington’s harbour-side stadium is locally known.
It hasn’t bothered Hooper, who admits the oddity of the occasion but is taking a no-excuses mentality into Australia’s first Test in 358 days.
“Too right it’s been strange,” he said.
“It’s been rugby, rugby and then PlayStation for some of the guys.
“We’ve just been released and no face masks for us now. Are we ready? Yeah we’re ready.
“Who would have thought at one point … any of us would be playing Test rugby this year. We’re all so pumped.”
Dave Rennie, overseeing Australia for the first time just a few kilometres from where he grew up, has named three Wallabies for their debuts; winger Filipo Daugunu, Hunter Paisami at 13 and Harry Wilson as blindside flanker.
“These guys all deserve to be here. They’re here for a reason,” Hooper said.
Given their work together on the forward line, Hooper has worked closely with Wilson and admires plenty about the 20-year-old’s game and attitude.
Wilson said on Friday he didn’t fear the prospect of taking on the All Blacks in New Zealand, despite the Wallabies’ 19-year run without success on the Shaky Isles.
Hooper, yet to taste the winning feeling in New Zealand himself, said that was refreshing.
“I’m excited to be playing alongside Harry,” he said.
“Big body, good carrier and hungry for a lot of that work. A good engine. Hopefully we get the ball in hand as much as possible.
“We’ve been together as a group for a long period of time, training for three or four weeks, and we’re ready to go.”