As the Wallabies team and support staff belted out Advance Australia Fair in the dressing room after a stirring TRC win in Mendoza, there was a conspicuous absence, and one that was less so.
The victors joined arms and stood close, but there was a missing link. Captain Michael Hooper was on his way home to Australia having a day earlier told his teammates that he was struggling mentally and needed a break from his high-pressure role as Wallabies skipper.
Hoops was never far from his teammates’ thoughts as they came back from a 19-10 halftime deficit to score five tries and win 41-26. Meanwhile, Matt Gibbon sang the song and his thoughts turned to his granddad Dave Pollock, who passed away earlier this week, days before his grandson wore the cherished jersey.
“It’s a real proud moment for me and also the team because we really wanted to put in an effort that our fans could be proud of and also our captain Hoops,” said stand in captain James Slipper.
“We were thinking about him all day and playing for him.
“To be honest, that was probably one of the more satisfying Tests I played, losing [Quade Cooper to injury], losing Hoops. The way we started the game again put ourselves under pressure but the way we fought back into the game and then wrestled it into our hands it was a proud moment to be a part of.
“We wanted to put it up performance as a team that Hoops would smile about so I’m sure when he looks at the score he’ll have a cheeky smile.”
Coach Dave Rennie added: “It highlights the respect we have for Hoops (Hooper), we talked a lot about him over the last 24 hours – how do you honour a man who’s emptied the tank in every Test over the past decade? It’s by putting in a performance like that in the second half,.
“We talked a lot about the courage that he’s shown and we needed to show the same sort of courage on the field today.”
Nic White was also hoping the victory brought Hooper some joy.
“We woke up Friday for captain’s run and were made aware about lunchtime that Hoops was having some issues,” White told Nine’s Sports Sunday program.
“He’s such a brave guy, really honest and even in a time of need, he’s thinking of the team. That speaks volumes for him.
“He was more worried about the team than he was himself.
“Since then it’s just been about supporting him. He’d be on his way home, hopefully, it will give him a bit of a smile knowing that we got up.
“The two traits, being brave enough to come forward and being honest with himself, where he’s at shows a fair bit of courage.
“They’re the traits that make him the leader he is for the squad, you know, he’s put his body on the line 120 odd times, it’s the reason we look up to him. Not only the team, the staff, and I’m sure a lot of people watching.
“Our thoughts with him, he’ll be on the mend, and hopefully he gets the support he needs and we’ll see him again shortly.”
Rugby players and fans from around the world reacted with praise for Hooper’s decision to seek help for his issues.
While there were heartfelt thoughts for Hooper, it was also an emotional occasion for Australia’s two debutants on Sunday.
It was revealed Gibbon’s grandfather, who took him and his brother in and encouraged their rugby journey during a difficult childhood, passed away this week.
“It was pretty surreal, losing my granddad, he’s the biggest reason why I was playing rugby,” said Gibbon after his late-game cameo. He had been welcomed on the field by pumped-up cheers from his fellow forwards.
“It’s been tough for me really, but I’m really happy with the boys. Really just quite clinical and focusing on rugby really helped me through, obviously getting out in the field helped a lot as well.”
He said he was calm before the game started but his nerves started jangling as he waited on the bench, ultimately replacing Slipper on 72 minutes.
The Roar’s Brett McKay, Harry Jones and Jim Tucker discussed Australia’s impressive win in an Instant Reaction podcast. Stream it here
“I’m not one to really try and play the game too early in my head because I know I can do that sometimes. As soon as we started singing the anthem I was trying to hold back tears. Lifelong dream here really,” he said.
“Watching the game on the bench for most was really getting the nerves jittery, but soon as I got on there I was bloody so excited and all the boys cheering me on, I was bloody happy to be there.
“That last few minutes I was up to my arse trying to make the clean and just doing whatever we can to get over the line, get that bonus point.”
Jed Holloway was another fighting back tears, without much success as his thoughts turned to his wife and daughter.
His eyes misted up when he was interviewed post game, having produced a stellar debut after a long, long wait to wear the Wallabies jersey for the first time.
“It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices gone into this. It wasn’t perfect tonight. I enjoyed the moment and very stoked one that I got to run out there but also I got to share it with a very good friend of mine, Matt Gibbon,” said Holloway.
“I cut bait in Japan and went over to spend time with my wife and meet my child for the first time over in America. And it was a long shot.
“But I still believed in myself and made she believed in me no matter what. She’s American and for her to back me on that… I’m very proud that I can stand here and make her proud tonight and make my parents proud and all the people that I represent.”
Rugby – The Roar