Hooper will take 2021 Waratahs sabbatical to play under Steve Hansen in Japan

Australia skipper Michael Hooper has agreed a deal that will see him play under Steve Hansen in 2021’s Japanese Top League, depriving the Waratahs of their seasoned back row.

It was last April when swingeing Covid-19 pay cut arrangements were confirmed by Rugby Australia following lengthy discussions with the Rugby Union Players Association.

To compensate for the loss of earnings, Rugby Australia agreed that a half-dozen of its top stars would be permitted to seek out six-month contracts overseas outside of the international Test window. This stipulation has now been taken advantage of by Hooper who will join Toyota Verblitz who have ex-All Blacks boss Hansen and ex-Wallabies assistant Simon Cron on their management ticket.  

With the Top League set to run parallel to Super Rugby in 2021, the sabbatical will likely see Hooper not play for the Waratahs next term, but he will be available to feature in Australia’s Test match programme next July. Other players such as Tevita Kuridrani, Matt Toomua and Dane Haylett-Petty are thought to be eligible for Rugby Australia sabbatical but Hooper, the 28-year-old who has 99 caps, is the first to put that clause into action.

The flanker is apparently halfway through a five-year, $1.2million per year deal that took a hit with last April’s pay cut negotiations. He now has the opportunity to recoup that financial loss in Japan. Hooper said: “This is a great opportunity for me to learn in a new rugby environment and develop a different perspective on the game.

“I’m really excited in the direction of rugby in Australia both at a Super Rugby level and at the Wallabies too under Dave (Rennie, the new coach). The Super Rugby AU competition this year has unearthed some really good young talent and they are all keeping me on my toes.”

Rugby Australia’s interim chief executive Rob Clarke added: “We’re incredibly supportive of Michael making this move in the first half of 2021. It’s a prudent decision, especially for someone who has been a devoted servant to the domestic game here in Australia for over ten years now.

“While he will head overseas for the first six months of next year, Michael has made it abundantly clear how committed he is to Australian rugby until at least the World Cup in 2023.”

RUPA chief executive Justin Harrison said: “What we’re seeing is an innovative approach to player contracting and this is a pragmatic solution for the game in Australia both at a club and national level.

“Michael is a humble, hardworking, honest Australian who has navigated through the blowtorch of scrutiny with diplomacy and unwavering loyalty. When sporting environments talk about culture, everything we speak about is reflected in him.

“He’s joining a strong high-performance environment which will help his development as a player but also as a person as he continues to explore a life that is not solely measured on a rugby field.”