Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall Chalkboard: Beware of Michael Hooper

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Michael Hoope in action for the Waratahs. Photo / Getty
Michael Hoope in action for the Waratahs. Photo / Getty

Michael Hooper. Those are two words that should have come up plenty of times during John Kirwan's strategy sessions ahead of this evening's clash against the Waratahs.

He's the best in the world at getting over the ball at the moment. To me, he's a bit of a George Smith clone. They have come up through that Brumbies system and although they have slightly different attributes, their mindset at the breakdown seems to be in sync.

Whenever we prepared for games in my playing days, you never liked to focus too much on opposition players but Smith was an exception to that rule because if you let him play his game, it adversely affected yours. I believe Hooper is the same and that's why, being a good coach, Kirwan would not have been able to avoid coming up with a strategy to blunt his effectiveness.

In this column I will 1. Explain exactly why Hooper is so effective and so damaging and 2. Explain what the Blues have to do to stop him getting in the game.

Hooper has a ball-in-hand game, but this is not what sets him apart from other flankers. It's not even the fact that he targets the breakdown turns over ball - every open side worth his salt is trying to do that. It's where he does it and the ruthless efficiency he brings to it that marks him down as the best in the business.

It's one thing to target opposition ball when they're trying to get out of their own half, but you'll see most flankers will be a lot more wary once the team with the ball enters goalkicking range. This is the points zone; the yellow-card zone. Flankers will try to be whiter than white here. Hooper is the opposite, this is his feeding time. When the opposition gets in behind is when he starts to prey.

There's a good reason for this. Once you have punched in behind, it is almost natural for the cleaners to relax a bit, to become less focused on technique. You have front-foot ball, the opposition are scrambling and all you're really concentrating on is clearing the ball quickly. Hooper has a sixth sense for a sloppy clean-out and this is when he attacks, gets over the ball, can't be moved and either wins the ball or a penalty for his side. To do this, he has to be technically perfect, low-to-the-ground and attack the breakdown at precisely the right angle. It's uncanny how often he gets this spot on.

This can have a traumatic effect on the attacking side. It is not easy to get behind defensive screens in modern rugby. When you do, you need to capitalise. Someone like Hooper ruining all that good work can have a really negative effect on not only the scoreboard, but your mindset.

Ask the rest of the world what they think of Richie McCaw and you'll get a different answer to what you'd get if you asked a New Zealander. We see him as a genius, a brilliant player. They see him as a complete nuisance, a negative, a destroyer of rugby. I know, I've lived overseas and heard it all. They obsess about him. That's the sort of effect a really good flanker can have. McCaw's game has changed over the years and right now, there's nobody better at destroying great attacking opportunities than Hooper.

So what do you do to stop him?

It's actually a pretty simple concept, but you have to apply it relentlessly. You have to concentrate for 80 minutes and you have to treat every single breakdown with the utmost respect, whether you're defending in your 22m or punching holes on attack.

When you see Hooper approach - make sure you've identified some features, like head tape, that means you can pick him up early - make sure you're 100 per cent spot on technically in your cleanout.

There's two ways of doing this. If you're getting there at the same time as Hooper you need to be, as Steve Hansen has always coached, like a plane taking off. You need to start low, attack on an upwards angle and get under his chest and drive through. This will get him upright and there's nothing anybody can do effectively at the breakdown in an upright position.

If Hooper is already there and establishing position you need to adopt the squeeze-and-roll technique. This is basically a wrestling technique that forwards love to practice, backs less so. You're basically grabbing his arms around the shoulders, squeezing them together and rolling him out sideways. This will counter the stability he is trying to get over the ball.

If the Blues can do this, it will go a long way towards them re-establishing themselves as a Super Rugby contender with a win tonight. If not, Hooper will have a field day. Either way, it's going to be a great contest at Eden Park.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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