Michael Hooper still looms large over the Wallabies with his flanker replacement Fraser McReight saying he’s trying to make the Test skipper proud.
Hooper is on indefinite leave for mental health reasons but watched Australia best South Africa in their Rugby Championship Test at Adelaide Oval.
They will again face the world champions at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium on Saturday, hunting consecutive Test victories for the first time this year.
Playing his fifth Test and first start on home soil, McReight was one of the stars in Adelaide, scoring two tries and forcing a turnover that saved a Springboks’ five-pointer.
The 23-year-old said Hooper messaged him straight after the match to congratulate him on the brace.
Despite Hooper’s absence opening up a starting spot, the Queenslander said he hoped that the Test centurion returned to the game.
In the meantime he planned to make his captain proud.
“He’s been wearing that jersey for decades, so obviously it was a big honour and I want to do him proud and do the jersey proud so I thought I did that,” McReight said.
“He texted me after the game and brought up the two tries I got so he’s probably sitting at home wishing he had scored those.
“I miss him and I want to keep learning off him as he’s one of the greats so hopefully he comes back soon.”
Making his Test debut back in 2020, the Queenslander has served a lengthy apprenticeship behind Hooper, who is among the first picked in each Wallabies side.
But McReight felt it had served him well to learn from one of the game’s “soldiers”.
“Obviously I waited a long time to get that exposure and competing with Hoops for two and a half years was very good for my development in terms of just seeing how he preps – he’s a soldier of the game, a great of the game – to see how he goes day to day and how he backs up from game to game,” McReight said.
“Being his apprentice and learning from him has been wonderful for me.”
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has made it clear there isn’t room for two specialist openside flankers in the match-day squad and McReight is fully expectant that if and when Hooper returns he will again have to bide his time until another opportunity arises.
Aged 30 now, next year’s Rugby World Cup is likely Hooper’s international last hurrah.
“Who knows – I’m just doing a job for the team at the moment,” McReight said.
“If he comes back and starts at seven, he’s a legend in the game and that’s what’s going to happen.”
Rennie was delighted with what McReight brought to the table against a formidable Boks backrow.
“Fraser has really grabbed his opportunity on the back of good work done in front of him,” said Rennie, referring to the Wallabies pack.
“Hell of an effort for a young seven to get a double and he got his hand on a bit of pill post-tackle so good performance.”