Australia’s hopes of ending a 13-year Bledisloe Cup drought have received a huge boost, with star flanker Michael Hooper free to tackle the All Blacks next week despite being found guilty of foul play.
After a painstaking SANZAR judicial hearing, stretching more than six hours over two sittings, Hooper was found guilty of striking or punching Pumas five-eighth Nicolas Sanchez in an off-the-ball incident during Australia’s 34-9 weekend win over Argentina in Mendoza.
But due to his good character and clean disciplinary record, the Wallabies vice-captain had his penalty halved and will serve his ban during Manly’s Sydney club semi-final against Randwick on Saturday.
The reprieve leaves Hooper available for Saturday week’s Rugby Championship decider against the All Blacks in Sydney, a massive showdown that doubles as the first of only two Bledisloe encounters in 2015.
Another draw at ANZ Stadium – like last year’s at the same venue – would be good enough to secure a first southern hemisphere crown since 2011 as the Wallabies top the table on points differential over the world champion All Blacks.
But, perhaps more importantly, the Wallabies must also win or draw to have any hope of wrestling back the Bledisloe Cup and claiming trans-Tasman bragging rights for the first time since 2002.
Hooper has been among Australia’s best performers in Australia’s two Rugby Championship wins over Argentina and South Africa, but must have feared the worst when judicial officer Nigel Hampton QC handed down his guilty verdict on Thursday night.
The matter had been adjourned from Wednesday night and Hampton dismissed Hooper’s defence that he pushed Sanchez off with an open hand, not a punch.
“It was submitted that this action was similar to a fend by a ball carrier attempting to stop himself from being tackled,” Hampton said.
“It was also submitted that the offence could not be made out as a strike because the law specifically lists the offences as the use of a fist, arm or elbow but not an open hand.
“I found that this submission could not be accepted. Allowing open hand striking motions such as this of force to any part of an opposing player’s body could not be deemed an act within the laws of the game and not able to be sanctioned.”
Hampton, though, found Hooper’s striking offence to be “at the lower-end entry point which stipulates a two-week suspension”.
“I found no aggravating factors to be present but did find a number of mitigating factors, including Hooper’s good character and repute along with his good disciplinary record,” he said.
“On that basis, the maximum allowed reduction of 50 per cent was given to the player, reducing the period of suspension to one week.”
The judicial officer said given Hooper was being rotated between starting for the Wallabies and being named on the bench, like he was against the Pumas, it was not unreasonable to accept the breakaway would have used Manly’s club match as valuable playing time had he been available for selection.
“I was officially advised in written form by all parties that if Hooper was available, he would play in this match,” Hampton said.
“I was also advised that other (Test) players were being made available to their clubs, which I accepted.
“The player is found to have contravened Law 10.4 (a) and is suspended up to and including Saturday, 1 August 2015.”