How Michael Hooper navigated the Israel Folau saga

Incumbent Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper has opened up on the difficulties of 2019, revealing how he navigated the minefield created by the Israel Folau saga as Australia tried to prepare for the Rugby World Cup.

Hooper will bring up 100 Tests when the Wallabies return to action, a Bledisloe Cup series against New Zealand later in the year appearing the most likely scenario amid the coronavirus pandemic, with indications on both sides of the Tasman that a "travel bubble" could be in operation later in 2020.

Whether Hooper continues as Wallabies captain remains just as uncertain, with incoming coach Dave Rennie yet to make any decision on who will lead the team forward.

Hooper has certainly crammed a lot in since succeeding Stephen Moore as Australia captain, but nothing could have prepared him for the situation the Folau saga created.

"Not well. It was a hard time, and it was a hard time for everyone," Hooper told Nick McArdle, host of The Playmakers' Playbook podcast, when asked how he'd dealt with the Folau saga.

"No matter what capacity, it was hard because it involved the public. It was a very big thing. A lot of phone calls, talking to people."

Hooper said he spoke with a number of people to seek advice on how to deal with the fallout from the saga that seemingly divided the nation, which included a Wallabies squad whose allegiances were split.

A number of players were upset Folau had been sacked after repeatedly posting anti-gay sentiments on social media, instead citing their teammate was merely expressing the views that aligned with his faith.

Veteran Wallabies prop Sekope Kepu later provided an affidavit in support of Folau, who won a confidential financial settlement form Rugby Australia late last year, saying he did not attend a team camp ahead of the Rugby Championship because he was so upset at how the code-hopper had been treated.

Centre Samu Kerevi also provided an affidavit in support of Folau, having expressed his frustrations on social media earlier in the year, as had prop Taniela Tupou.

While Kepu, Kerevi and Tupou all ended up travelling to Japan as part of the Wallabies' World Cup squad, Hooper admitted it had been challenging bringing a fractured group together.

"Certainly there was an aspect of that [healing], but it's just having conversations, tough conversations that you wouldn't have usually had," Hooper told McArdle. "And that was different because you were talking about something that is a little bit uncomfortable, something that it a little bit tough to deal with.

"It's not just 'how you going, mate; it's where do you want to go with this, where do we stand on that and how can we get through it? And [we] had some great conversations; though in saying that, there was some really good people around in the whole environment; it was great."

The Wallabies were later eliminated in the quarterfinals of the World Cup by England, with coach Michael Cheika calling time on his tenure the following day.

A private person who doesn't engage in social media as it is, Hooper said he retracted further into his shell as the pain of Australia's early exit dragged on until the end of year.

"World Cup last year is going to live with me forever," Hooper said. "That was the worst thing, you get knocked out in the quarterfinal and you get sent home on the Monday...we were back on the Tuesday or Wednesday morning and then you're just in that cycle that I was talking about earlier; you're just thinking about what you could have done [differently].

"You're walking down the street with the head in the hoodie because you're not proud of how things went...you wish you could have given the country the result, and it didn't happen."

While he has been training in isolation, Hooper also played a leading role in the pay negotiations that were signed off 10 days ago after more than a fortnight of, at times, tense discussions.

It proved to be Raelene Castle's final act as chief executive, while Rugby Australia officials are now working on getting players back on the field, most likely through a domestic competition featuring Australia's four Super Rugby sides and the Western Force.

Hooper said he was loathed to predict just what the final outcome could look like, both this year and beyond.   "My vision is forever changing, like everyone's vision is I think at the moment," Hooper told McArdle. "To put my finger on exactly what that could look like is silly, because we don't know what the next three months could look like, let alone six months, let alone what 2021 could look like.

"Fingers crossed this thing [COVID-19] that we're experiencing at the moment can go away quicker than what it came about -- but that doesn't look like it's going to be the case -- and people can stay healthy and stay positive.

"But we want to be back on the field in whatever capacity that can be in the next little bit of time; how we can do that; what's that going to look like; we just don't know.

"So we're like everyone else at the moment, we're sitting and waiting and running up hills by ourselves in isolation, waiting for the time when the government and health crew say 'you guys can get back out there on the park or at least go into training ... so I don't know what it's going to look like, nor do many."