Wallabies captain Michael Hooper says time will tell whether his six-month stint in Japan was a personal success, but admits player sabbaticals are worth exploring in greater number as Rugby Australia fights to retain its best players.
Hooper fronted the media via Zoom on Friday morning, the skipper back in green and gold for the opening week of the Wallabies camp on the Gold Coast having returned from Japan last month.
Wallabies coach Dave Rennie finally put to bed questions over Hooper's place as captain at Rugby Australia's World Cup bid launch in May, ensuring the veteran No. 7 will continue to lead the national side despite pushes in some quarters for a change in leadership.
But after a difficult couple of years, stemming back to the Israel Folau saga and then last year's uncertainty and the onset of player pay cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic, Hooper is cutting a reinvigorated figure as he reacquaints himself with some old Wallabies faces and those getting a taste of the Test setup for the first time.
He says the chance to work with former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and long-time rival Kieran Read at Toyota Verblitz was a blessing, so too former Waratahs assistant Simon Cron, but stopped short of declaring his six-month sabbatical a complete success.
"I think time will tell," Hooper replied when asked if it was "exactly what he needed". "I'm feeling good now, I may look fresh but the body's pretty sore after a couple of days; certainly two weeks' quarantine and my own training is definitely not where I need to be for these guys.
"I tell you what, you forget about how big some of the units are here; Sitaleki Timani being back in the group, Rob Leota, there are some big fellas here and already the guys are [ripping in]. But there is a bit of a pack size change from what I've been used to in the last six months."
As Rennie looks to overhaul the Wallabies defensive structure, which Hooper confirmed had been a big focus so far on the Gold Coast, there is the ongoing off-field fight to keep Australia's best players in the country - or at least available to the national team when possible.
Matt Philip has returned from a season overseas in France, while Izack Rodda will likely come into Wallabies calculations later in the year after also committing himself to a Super Rugby club for 2022.
But then there are guys like Marika Koroibete and Isi Naisarani who are both tipped to sign multi-year deals in either Japan or Europe, and hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa who has been selected in the Wallabies squad this season despite his impending move to France at the end of the year.
They are situations Rennie has referenced multiple times and suggested RA could look to combat the "phenomenal money" on offer through an increasing number of sabbaticals or by somehow bringing the Japanese clubs into a regional Super Rugby tournament that would allow Australian players to earn the big-money but perhaps remain eligible for the national team.
Hooper acknowledged playing sabbaticals like the one he just completed in Japan could be the best path for RA head down.
"I think it's certainly something we should explore, but I'm not saying it's something that should be a given right for players because each player has a unique path and a unique development," Hooper said. "But it's certainly something we should explore.
"We forget that you can do a shoulder and be out for six months, and I've been away for five, so we're very quick to say 'oh god, we lost a guy for six months' yet we can do that with an injury so quickly. But it is a fine balance, we don't want to be losing our players, we need experienced players to funnel back information and experience to younger players.
"So getting that balance right I know is something that Dave's big on and has a really open mind to as well, and I know that the players are keen. But again it's up to the individual, some guys never want to leave; I never saw that happening for myself and then the opportunity presented itself and I now see it as being beneficial."
Hooper is tipped to be joined in the back-row by Reds No. 8 Harry Wilson and Brumbies flanker Rob Valetinin for the opening Test against France, in a trio that may at last strike the right balance for the Wallabies.
Waratahs firebrand Lachie Swinton, who was cleared to face France following a SANZAAR judiciary hearing, is another option while Rebels Rob Leota and Michael Wells could offer cover from the bench.
The Wallabies also have good size in the second-row with the return of Sitaleki Timani and last year's rookie of the year Philip, while Hooper said Brumbies coach Dan McKellar, who has joined as a forwards coach for this season, had already started to make his mark.
"He brings a bit of a hard nose, and I've noticed that in the first couple of days, to that role," Hooper said of McKellar. "He's got a solid track record there of being able to put together a maul and run a really effective ship and lead a good forwards unit.
"I mentioned before some of the bodies and size of the people that we have in this environment, he's got more of that to play with. It's just like a natural progression that guys just seem to get bigger the more levels you go up, so he's probably licking his lips with some of the specimens he's got in here in the room."
Meanwhile, Brumbies scrum-half Ryan Lonergan continues to offer cover as the Wallabies third halfback option with uncertainty around the availability of Jake Gordon. The Waratahs skipper will join the squad on the Gold Coast at some point but appears unlikely for any action against France.