SYDNEY (Reuters) - Michael Hooper's long, golden locks have been shorn but the fierce desire for success that made him the youngest Wallabies captain for more than half a century remains, and that can only be good news for Australia.
The 23-year-old flanker signed up to stay at home until the end of 2018 on Thursday, a rare bit of good news for Australia as they battle to keep the likes of Israel Folau, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale in Wallaby gold beyond the World Cup.
Hooper said he had not been contacted by any clubs bearing bags of cash and looking to lure him away to Europe or Japan, which he put down to the fact that he had never for one moment considered walking away.
"Doing anything but this was never on the cards," Hooper told reporters under a tree as a rain shower passed over the New South Wales Waratahs training ground on Thursday.
"I'm really stoked to be able to have some real comfort and real excitement about what's going to be a great couple of years.
"There's a great bunch of guys starting to re-sign. I think it's a great competition, the best competition, it's a place where players want to play.
"An exciting time in Super Rugby over the next couple of weeks... and then the World Cup, which I've never been a part of and I really want to be a part of."
Injury aside, Hooper will certainly have his wish where the World Cup is concerned, even if his grip on the number seven shirt is not quite as tight as it was before David Pocock returned from injury and George Smith became eligible again.
"I think that's a good thing," Hooper said. "It makes you keep on your toes and try and play your best rugby. Competition's never a bad thing."
Hooper, like Smith, grew up in Sydney's northern beaches before following the 111-cap Wallaby's path from the Manly Marlins to Canberra and the ACT Brumbies, where he made his Super Rugby debut as an 18-year-old in 2010.
Hooper made his international bow in a defeat to Scotland in a Newcastle typhoon in 2012 and it has pretty much been an upward trajectory for him since.
After moving back to his home city with the Waratahs, he won the John Eales Medal as Australia's best player in 2013 and captained New South Wales to their first Super Rugby title last year.
A fixture in the Wallabies team for the last test season, Hooper stepped up to take over the captaincy when Stephen Moore was injured after just a few minutes in the role.
At 22, he was the youngest skipper since Ken Catchpole in 1961 and he would love to retain the role even now that hooker Moore is fit again and in fine form for the Brumbies.
"Massive privilege, massive privilege," he said on Thursday, quickly adding: "For whoever gets it.
"I had a taste of it last year and it was a great experience."
Hooper has an incredible work ethic, always hungry to carry the ball and make a tackle, and his ball-thieving skills at the breakdown pall in an Australian context only when compared to Pocock.
In Michael Cheika, coach this year of the Waratahs and the Wallabies, Hooper has clearly found someone who he believes brings out the best in him.
"Part of the reason I re-signed is that I see this as a place I can improve as a player and a person," he said.
"With Cheik, I've found myself improving as a player so the more time I get to spend with him (the better)."
The Waratahs face a crucial step in their Super Rugby title defence in Sydney on Saturday when they host the Queensland Reds looking to secure a home playoff semi-final.
Hooper, however, will cut a slightly different figure on the Sydney Football Stadium pitch after a visit to the barbers to distinguish him from hooker Hugh Roach, whose hairstyle and ill-fitting headband were similar to Hooper's.
"Our stats on the field were getting confused so we had to do something about it. I lost the bet so it's gone," Hooper laughed.
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)
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