Wallabies flanker Michael Hooper is relieved and peeved after being cleared to tackle the All Blacks in next week’s Rugby Championship decider in Sydney.
Australia’s hopes of breaking a 13-year Bledisloe Cup drought received a huge boost when Hooper’s two-match ban for foul play was halved at a SANZAR judicial hearing on Thursday night because of his clean record.
After a painstaking process, stretching more than six hours over two sittings, Hooper was found guilty of striking 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 unblemished disciplinary record, the Wallabies vice-captain had his penalty cut to a one-game ban, which he will serve during Manly’s Sydney club semi-final against Randwick on Saturday after being named on the Marlins bench.
While Hooper was thrilled to be available for the Rugby Championship climax – which doubles as the first of only two Bledisloe encounters in 2015 – he was clearly frustrated that his hearing stretched more than six hours and was adjourned on Wednesday night.
“Well, it’s Thursday now so it’s been a tough week, to be honest,” Hooper said. “It’s been tough to have been left in limbo for so long.
“But there’s a result there now. I’m happy with it. I can get on with it now and I can put my focus on towards the Bledisloe.
“But this is the first time I’ve been in this situation, before this having a clean record and so it was all pretty new to me.
“Hence why I was left a bit confused by the overnight wait.”
World Cup winner George Gregan dubbed the lag in the Hooper decision a blight on SANZAR, while Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was just glad it was all over.
“The first thing he said to me when it happened was that he’s never punched anyone in his life on the footy field,” Cheika said.
“It’s not his go and so that was noted and so I think the suspension given was at the very low end.”
Hooper has been among Australia’s best performers in their 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.
Hampton dismissed Hooper’s defence that he pushed Sanchez off with an open hand “similar to a fend by a ball carrier attempting to stop himself from being tackled”.
But he 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.”
He said given Hooper wasn’t guaranteed a start for the Wallabies after being named on the bench against Argentina, it was reasonable to accept the breakaway would have used Manly’s club match as valuable playing time.