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AUSTRALIA Wallabies VICE-CAPTAIN Michael Hooper is free to play New Zealand in Saturday’s Rugby Championship decider after his one-week ban was not extended.
Hooper was cited for a punch on Nicolas Sanchez during the Wallabies’ 34-9 win over Argentina on July 25.
SANZAR – the governing body for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa rugby – appealed the decision claiming that the punishment was not severe enough, while Australia also challenged the sanction as they felt it was too harsh.
However, a SANZAR Appeals Committee has dismissed both challenges, freeing the flanker to feature against the All Blacks in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash at the ANZ Stadium that will decide who wins the Rugby Championship.
“I’m glad it’s wrapped up and I can really look forward to this week and moving forward into the first Bledisloe,” Hooper said.
“It’s been a little bit tough but I have been preparing as if I’ve been right to play and I’ll be trying to get into the team for this week.”
Whether or not Hooper starts against the All Blacks remains to be seen. The 23-year-old wore the number 7 jersey in the win against South Africa on the opening day, before dropping to the bench against Argentina, with David Pocock starting.
Wallabies flanker Michael Hooper’s welcome-home present to Australia will be a pivotal SANZAR judicial hearing, where he will fight for his spot in the Bledisloe Cup opener after being hit with a striking charge following the win over Argentina.
The gloss of the 34-9 win over Los Pumas started to be stripped away on Sunday in Mendoza, with Quade Cooper involved in an unsavoury tweet and news that Hooper was in some doubt to face the All Blacks in Sydney on Saturday week.
Wallabies management went on the front foot in dealing with the Cooper matter, putting the player and coach Michael Cheika up for interview and taking most of the air out of the story before they set foot on the plane.
But that seems like little more than a storm in a teacup compared to the potential loss of Hooper, who along with fellow No. 7 David Pocock and fullback Israel Folau has been one of the standouts for the Wallabies in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship.
Hooper will face allegations of punching or striking an opponent with the fist or arm, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee. The incident took place in the 59th minute of the match at the Estadio Malvinas as Hooper trailed behind a rampant Dean Mumm, who would brush off some fairly comical defence to score in the corner.
The flanker was being held back by the jersey by Pumas No. 10 Nicolas Sanchez. Hooper objected and swung around with his right arm, sending Sanchez sprawling to the ground over the sideline.
A hearing will take place at 5pm next Wednesday, a day after the Wallabies touch down in Sydney and four days before they return to camp in preparation for the All Blacks, who showed their might with a stirring win over South Africa in Johannesburg.
While the incident has lavishly been described as a ‘huge punch’, Wallabies officials are adamant Hooper shoved Sanchez to the ground with an open hand and not a closed fist.
Fairfax Media has seen the frame-by-frame footage the Wallabies will use to support their argument, which shows Hooper making contact near the base of the neck on the back of the head and pushing through with his palm.
There is also a feeling within sections of the Wallabies that the Pumas were overly theatrical at times during the match. The footage shows Sanchez being shoved in the back of the head before clutching his face after tumbling to the ground.
It will be Hooper’s first trip to a judicial hearing and a clean sheet will be in his favour. But the inherent unpredictability of the sanctions means Hooper and the Wallabies have every right to be nervous as the wait for an outcome.
The charge carries a two-week entry point, which would see him miss the match against the All Blacks assuming he was named for his club side Manly on the previous Saturday.
Should it be downgraded to a one-week ban he could miss a club rugby match and still be available for what would be a very relieved Cheika ahead of his first coaching assignment against New Zealand.
Anything more than a fortnight would mean Hooper would be a spectator for the home and away Bledisloe Tests, making it an even tougher assignment for a Wallabies side that will start as heavy underdogs at ANZ Stadium.