It is the best part of two months since Mike MacDonald, a 19st front-row forward from the United States equipped with an upper body very nearly as substantial as his native California, if marginally less seductive, landed splat on the prone form of his own club captain, Stuart Hooper, and left him nursing some serious damage to his sternum curricular joint, which "popped" out of place. "It was," Hooper confessed this week, "bloody painful. Why couldn't it have been a little bloke? Why did it have to be a prop?"
Hooper returned to the Leeds team last weekend, playing the last 20 minutes of a home defeat by Bath that left his club six points adrift at the foot of the Guinness Premiership table. He would have resumed as captain for today's thankless trip to Leicester – most right-thinking people would consider an out-of-joint sternum vastly preferable to an afternoon's kicking from Martin Corry and company – but he is carrying a minor calf injury and the Yorkshiremen would be plain daft to risk their most consistent performer ahead of a three-match programme that will decide their top-flight future. They play Bristol at home next weekend, then travel to Worcester before return to Headingley to entertain a Newcastle side sponsored by a certain nationalised bank. If Leeds are not to spend another year as the Northern Wrecks of English rugby, two victories is the minimum requirement.
"Those games will certainly tell us all we need to know about ourselves," Hooper said. "Do we think we can stay up? Of course. People look at us from the outside and assume, in a very black-and-white way, that we don't stand a chance. Clearly, we don't have the kind of superior squad found at a lot of Premiership clubs these days but if we're not the best side on paper, we always think we have the potential to be the best side on the day. We have fallen right off the back, have we? We're six points behind Worcester with a game in hand, and we'd be closer still if we hadn't lost to a last-minute drop goal at Newcastle back in the autumn."
While Leeds embark on this voyage of self-discovery, Premiership insiders already know this much about Hooper: that he is among the hardest-working locks in the country, that he has strong leadership qualities, that he boasts a range of virtues – selflessness, loyalty, a highly developed sense that debts of honour should be paid in full – for which any coach would happily kill. It is why Bath have lured him back to the West Country on a three-year deal that will kick in the moment this season's league business is concluded.
Hooper may have started his career at Saracens, but he is a man of Devon, born in Exeter and educated at Ivybridge Community College, a jewel in the crown of a system once dominated by fee-paying schools.
"After my GCSEs, I had a fair bit of interest from the private schools in the area – very much the traditional route for teenagers like myself," he said. "But while I was training with the county under-16 team my dad met Malcolm Collins, who was setting up what he called a 'satellite academy' at Ivybridge. Malcolm suggested we take a look before making a decision on schooling, and when we did, that decision was easy to make. The facilities were outstanding, and the place had a cutting-edge feel about it. We did things with weights that the more established rugby schools didn't cotton on to for five or six years."
Saracens were hardly local to Devon, but the Watford-based club had been the first to tap into the Ivybridge set-up. "I'd travel up there for training in a minibus with a few other lads – Chris Bell, James Parkes, Adryan Winnan – and when I turned 18 and finished my exams, they gave me the call," he said. Wayne Shelford, one of the great All Black captains, was the director of rugby when Hooper, still in his teens, broke into the first team. "You can construct a team around someone like Stuart," said Shelford at the time. It was not something the formidable New Zealander said about many of the fully-fledged internationals at his disposal.
Yet Hooper left for Leeds, less wealthy and less glamorous, just when it seemed he would become a fixture at Vicarage Road. "Saracens were going through a rocky period – there wasn't much continuity or direction, it seemed to me – and I felt I needed to be learning things. Phil Davies was coaching at Leeds and I'd heard brilliant things about him, so I moved. It got me out of London, too, which was important." Spoken like a good man of the western shires.
He has been captain for three seasons now and as a consequence he can boast a richer rugby experience than most 26-year-olds. In his first year, Leeds finished bottom by the Premiership's equivalent of a country mile; in his second, he led from the front to inspire an immediate return to the elite division. He knows what it is to sweat out a victory on the far side of the Pennines at Sedgley Park, or in the distant south-west at Cornish Pirates, as well as play in front of a full house at Welford Road or Kingsholm. Each and every trip away from Headingley has given him a fresh layer of perspective.
"I was never one of those players who thought a season spent playing below Premiership level would be harmful to the career path," he said. "Quite the opposite, actually. When you play in the Premiership for a side like Leeds, you're driven by the pressure of not losing. In National League One, the mindset shifts: suddenly, you're under pressure to win. It's a small difference, but a crucial one in terms of sporting psychology. When we came back up, we were stronger for the experience."
They were not strong on the personnel front, though. Hooper's decision to stay on after relegation – he felt it was his place, as captain, to set an example – left him in a minority of not very many. Iain Balshaw, Danny Care, Jordan Crane, David Doherty, Tom Palmer, Gordon Ross and the former All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall were among those who jumped ship. It was not at all clear then that Leeds would start their National League One campaign as realistic contenders for the one available promotion place.
"When Harlequins went down the previous season, they kept the body of their squad together," Hooper said. "Northampton did the same when they were relegated last year. At Leeds, the situation wasn't like that at all. We had more in common with Bristol, who finished bottom and lost an entire team back in 2003. There were some interesting moments when the full extent of the exodus became clear. I remember going to Headingley to pick up my off-season training schedule. There were only six or seven of us there. Everyone else had quit.
"When we reported back, Stuart Lancaster [who had replaced Davies as director of rugby] arranged the meeting room in a very particular way: about 20 new players in one area, 10 academy lads in another, and the old lags somewhere else. He said: 'I'm just popping out for two minutes.' The meaning was clear. We had that amount of time to introduce ourselves – to mix and mingle and form ourselves into a single group, which we did. When he came back in, Stuart looked around and told us: 'Right. That's the first step on our journey.'"
Hooper has another kind of journey ahead of him now. Why Bath, when the uncertainty over their future at the Recreation Ground is of serious concern and senior figures like Steve Borthwick and Olly Barkley are heading out of town? "I want to give myself the opportunity to play my best rugby – to make it at the very top of the club game and win things," said Hooper, who was in the Leeds side that beat Bath in the 2005 cup final. "I love Leeds, which has given me an enormous amount as a city as well as a club, but some of my earliest rugby memories are of watching Bath play and it's an evocative place for me. My dad used to take me to the Rec during the 'golden era', when all the famous names were there – Barnes, Guscott, Hill, Hall, Robinson. It's a club with a great history, and ambition to match."
First, though, comes the small matter of Premiership survival. "To play for Bath, against Leeds, in the top league next season – it's a wonderful thought," he said.
"We're at the point where we need some performances, but I'm convinced we can get through this. Those people new to Premiership rugby have played all 11 of the other teams now and they have nothing to fear. The standard of the league is tremendous and there are world-class players against us wherever we look but we're really not that far adrift. We're well coached, and lack of commitment will never be a problem. If we can be just that little bit more accurate, we'll beat a big team. And when that happens, the confidence levels will go skywards."
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But while Leeds have not won in the Premiership since October, they would not swap their run-in for that of Worcester, whom they can see on the horizon. As Hooper intends to leave Headingley with a clear conscience, his sights will be fixed on the Midlanders to the bitter end.Reuse content