Hooper, Cooper & Kerevi prove it's not all bad news when Wallabies shift to Japan

If Australian rugby has learned anything this year, it's that the Japanese Top League is not solely a threat to the development and success of the Wallabies -- but that it can actually serve the Australian game for the good, too.

It may also prove to be the simplest solution to the ongoing debate around the Giteau Law, which Rugby Australia currently has under review amid the dynamic nature of the global player market.

But with Michael Hooper, Samu Kerevi and now Quade Cooper having all returned to the Wallabies, making significant individual impacts after spending their club seasons in the Top League, the last two years in the case of the Queenslanders, it's clear that a stint overseas might not be the worst thing after all.

Sure, departures will continue to sting Super Rugby teams in Australia. But from a personal development perspective, and how that can feed back into the Wallabies, it isn't all bad news.

"I don't think there's really anything I didn't appreciate about the game, but like I said many times, is that I feel like in Japan, being away, being in different environments, you work out ways to go about your everyday life and understand the role that rugby plays in that," Cooper said this week of the positive impacts of his experience with Kintetsu Liners.

"And the role that your everyday life, setting up your daily [plan] and living in a zone that is at a certain level, that follows over into the way you approach your training, the way you approach the meetings, the way you have everything in order fitted around your life and not the opposite way around.

"So I think that, beforehand, rugby was the focal point and your life kind of comes second; so when you look at it like that, the pressure that you put on yourself, the highs that you live in when you get a win, the lows that you live if you lose; you can't be living your life based on that, based on an outcome.

"So you look at the game on the weekend...if I miss that kick, do I go home and feel really upset and down on myself? If I get it, do I go out and celebrate and feel like I'm the man or something like that?

"It's more so just understanding the process and the journey, and I think that being in Japan really allowed me to have time to put my focus into my life as a whole, and understand the role that rugby played in that."

While Cooper is only one Test into his Wallabies return, it's clear the impact his Japanese stint has had on his mentality, the way he approaches everyday life, and how that in turn has had a positive effect on his rugby.

Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper has chartered a far different career path than Cooper, before he too wound up in Japan earlier this year.

Whereas Cooper treaded a wayward path earlier in his career, Hooper was entrusted with the Wallabies captaincy at just 22. The veteran openside, who will this week overtake George Gregan for the most number of Tests as Wallabies skipper, has never put a foot wrong off the field and has won three John Eales Medals on it along the way.

But it was clear a change of scenery was in order after the challenges of both 2019 and 2020, most notably the Israel Folau saga and the COVID-enforced pay reductions where Hooper had been front and centre in negotiations as a representative of the players.

While COVID may have curtailed the off-field experiences Hooper had sought in Japan, on the paddock, the 29-year-old had the chance to work with esteemed All Blacks duo Kieran Read and coach Steve Hansen, having butted heads on opposing sides for a number of years previously, an opportunity that simply would not have arisen at home in Australia.

"I've heard a lot of cricketers, when they speak about the IPL, say they are able to meet guys, chat with people they've played against for a long time," Hooper said back in March this year.

"It's making that community of elite players closer and there's a sharing of ideas.

"It hadn't really dawned on me until coming up here where Kieran, myself, Willie [le Roux] and other players have been able to talk about anything and everything."

Some will say that Hooper has returned and merely picked up from where he had left off in 2020. But in the now seven Tests the Wallabies have played this year, he has been among Australia's top three performing players in each.

While Cooper kicked the match-winner on the Gold Coast, had it not been for Damian Willemse's gamble that Hooper would pass, and not dummy to Reece Hodge in the 77th minute, it might again be the skipper Australia was celebrating come Monday morning.

Sitting out the Waratahs' winless Super Rugby season can't have been easy for the proud New South Welshman, but it's clear it has done him the world of good.

Like Cooper, Samu Kerevi probably thought his chances of wearing the gold jersey again this year were slim. But in the space of two months he has represented Australia at the Tokyo Olympics and then returned to the Wallabies midfield for Tests against the All Blacks and Springboks, providing invaluable midfield thrust and setting up Australia's only try against South Africa last Sunday.

Kerevi's departure to Japan really rocked Australian rugby in 2019. The Reds skipper, who had just enjoyed his best season yet, signed a three-year deal with Suntory to take advantage of the financial incentives on offer, provide for his family and reunite with his brother, who was studying in the country.

It was not a decision Kerevi made easily and while he played only six games in 2020 before the COVID pandemic struck, the hard-running centre spoke glowingly of his experience in an interview with ESPN during hotel quarantine last year.

Fast forward to 2021 and Kerevi has now had the added bonus of playing outside Beauden Barrett -- who has made his own return to Test level with the All Blacks, slotting back into the No. 10 jersey in the absence of Richie Mo'unga -- which has only further enriched the Australian's rugby brain.

"He's been excellent. Like Quade [Cooper], he's an experienced man who's contributing really well," Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said or Kerevi after he recently rejoined the squad.

"There is a fair bit to get your head around, of course, and he's been excellent. He's obviously played over at Suntory. A good mate of mine, Jason O'Halloran, coaches over there.

"He gave me some really positive feedback around Samu's preparation and the detail around trying to be better each day and we are seeing evidence of that in our squad."

Undoubtedly, the standard of the Japanese Top League has risen with a greater influx of international players, or at least more Test stars like Hooper, Kerevi and the All Blacks Brodie Retallick, heading off in their prime, rather than at the tail-end of their careers.

And, importantly, it runs concurrently with Super Rugby, creating the opportunity where players can return for the southern hemisphere Test calendar after their Japanese season is complete.

Ideally, Australian rugby would have the money to retain all of its Tests stars deep into their final years of professional rugby, ensuring that the five Super Rugby franchises are as strong as possible. But that hasn't been the case for some time, and is unlikely to ever be again.

But in the returns of Hooper, Kerevi and now Cooper, there is more than just an isolated sample size that a stint in Japan can indeed be beneficial financially, but also when it comes to personal and rugby development.

Sean McMahon, who is about to rejoin the Wallabies for the rest of the year, will be the latest test case worthy of examination.

And in terms of players heading off overseas, and the ramifications it has for the Giteau Law and RA's review of it, Japan is well and truly the lesser of two evils when compared with Europe, a situation that would only further be enhanced if Australia and New Zealand can forge strong ties with the JRFU in the coming years.

"To be honest, what would be a great scenario long term is that the Japanese clubs come into Super Rugby, so now we could actually pick from that competition because we're comparing apples with apples," Rennie noted earlier this year.

"It would be brilliant."

Whether it's been Cooper's off-field growth and life out of the spotlight, Hooper's opportunity to work with a couple of star New Zealanders and to decompress after a tough couple of years, or any number of positive tangibles for Kerevi, the performances of the trio in their Wallaby appearances to date have been excellent.

No longer can a player's decision to look to Japan be met with solely disapproval, the evidence from the past few months has clearly shifted it on the opportunity-cost ratio.