James Slipper recognises he has some seriously big boots to fill when he takes over the Wallabies’ captaincy from Michael Hooper, the man he believes ought to pick up the World Player of the Year award.
Hooper suffered a foot injury in last weekend’s defeat by England, with Wallabies coach Dave Rennie having no hesitation in turning to the veteran prop Slipper to take over for Saturday’s (Sunday morning, AEDT) year-ending Test against Wales in Cardiff.
Slipper reckons the players are “desperate” to finish 2021 on a high after a disappointing tour to Britain and want to win for their inspirational leader.
“I’d be voting for Hoops – easily,” said Slipper in Cardiff on Friday, commenting on the flanker being short-listed for next month’s World Rugby’s player of the year gong alongside Wallaby centre Samu Kerevi, England lock Maro Itoje and French scrum-half Antonie Dupont.
“He’s had an exceptional year. He’s shown it with the numbers he’s producing and I guess he’s had one of his best years of his career.
“He is the captain of our country – the boys love him, we always get behind him and he’s going to be sorely missed this weekend but hopefully we can get the job done for him.”
Hooper has captained Australia 65 times but this will be only the second time Slipper has been handed the job in 113 appearances, six years since he led the Wallabies to a 47-10 win in a much less pressurised affair against the USA in Chicago.
“I guess there’s a lot of time in between drinks there,” he smiled.
“It’s a sheer joy for myself. I guess playing for Australia is pretty humbling, but to be captain is something very special.”
In those intervening six years, Slipper has had an eventful time, bouncing back impressively after a two-month ban from the game in 2018 for taking cocaine to becoming an increasingly authoritative figure in the squad.
“It’s definitely extra special,” he said.
“I’ve been on a journey that’s taken me to different places but I think the special thing is knowing I’m still in the team and contributing, to be honest.
“We’re a pretty tight group, there’s a leadership group that works really well together and just being part of that is special. But being able to lead the boys out on the weekend is something I won’t forget.”
The prospect of keeping his 100 per cent winning record as captain takes on new significance after the two deflating defeats by Scotland and England mean the Wallabies are staring at the prospect of a winless tour to Europe for the first time in 45 years.
“It’s very important to finish the year on a high,” said Slipper.
“The last two games just haven’t been up to scratch for us as a group.
“I feel like we’ve gone into each of those games very prepared but we just haven’t managed to do it under lights in a pressure moment.
“Definitely, we’ve trained extremely well all week. At no stage does a Wallaby team go out there and not be desperate to win. It goes without saying that when you pull on that jersey, you rip in.
“And there’s no better way to finish a long COVID year with a win in Cardiff. That’s our plan.”