How the weight of a Wallabies career like no other finally caught up with Michael Hooper

Michael Hooper. It's a name synonymous with everything fans envisage in a Wallabies jersey and an engine that never stops running. That was until it ground to a sudden halt on Thursday night when he was overlooked by Eddie Jones for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

While his omission will be a shock to many, the extraordinary mental and physical toll Hooper has borne throughout his remarkable career had bubbled over in recent times and made the pursuit of a third World Cup campaign increasingly tough.

Preparing for the Wallabies' Rugby Championship opener against the Pumas in Argentina last year, Hooper's engine finally gave out after years of shouldering the heavy load of leading the Wallabies through two World Cups, 28 Bledisloe Cup Tests -- 21 of them losses --- and the unfortunate and bitter Israel Folau saga.

Leaving the team and returning to Australia for a mental health break, the writing was seemingly already on the wall; could or would the Wallabies captain return? And would he ever be the same star on the pitch as he had been in the past?

While he'd make his return for the end of season Autumn Nations tour, where he'd play three of Australia's four matches before a concussion would rule him out for their final game of the year, it wouldn't be as captain, and he never made the same impact he'd made on the game before his break.

A talismanic figure, Hooper led from the front in all 125 Tests he played, was named captain under four different coaches -- including Eddie Jones -- became Australia's longest running captain in 2021, and is one of the finest players Australia has ever produced. It makes Jones' decision to cut the 31-year-old from the World Cup squad, and end Hooper's Wallabies career, even more heartbreaking for a player who had put everything and more into a side that often failed to produce results in return.

A player who missed just 18 Tests since his debut in 2012 until last month, many of which he started and played the full 80 minutes, it would be a calf injury that would cruelly rule him out of playing a final Test in front of an adoring home crowd in Sydney and a chance to bow out on his own terms.

But questions of Hooper's ability to reach a third World Cup had been circling for weeks, if not months, after his form at the Waratahs failed to reach the same heights as previous seasons, despite the No. 7 taking out an incredible 8th Matt Burke Cup earlier this week. His performance against Springboks in July only further raised doubts as to whether he still warranted a place in the Wallabies 23, while Queensland youngster Fraser McReight made his mark at Super Rugby level and has long been seen as Hooper's heir apparent.

Returning for his final season with the Tahs, it was clear the many years of hard hits, barnstorming runs, and propensity to place his head in dark places many others wouldn't, had taken its toll on the 31-year-old. There's no question his heart was still very much in the game, but his output in the sky blue couldn't match what had been witnessed over his nine-year career with the Waratahs.

Pushing himself through niggles and another season of heavy load, Hooper trailed McReight in every stat that counted, with the Reds flanker the competition's leading pilferer and tackler, while he recorded more ball carries and carry metres.

Signs of Hooper's slowing were there a year earlier after he returned from a sabbatical in Japan, a foot injury saw fellow Tahs flanker Charlie Gamble become the team's cult hero after he emulated Hooper's heroics in the flanker's extended absence and made the No. 7 jersey his own.

Hooper retained his place in Jones' Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship though -- even named co-captain alongside experienced campaigner James Slipper -- more so for his experience and leadership capabilities than for what he'd been showing on the field over the last five months, and was given his chance to earn his place in a tightly-contested back-row.

But with a niggly calf injury, a lacklustre showing against the Springboks, McReight's shining performance in the Wallabies' 23-20 by the All Blacks in Bledisloe II in Dunedin, and Brumbies' Tom Hooper's meteoric rise this year, it appears Hooper has pulled on the gold jersey for the last time.

While the flanker had always planned for the World Cup to be the end of his international career, Jones has had no qualms in ending his career even earlier and with no decision from Hooper on his playing future post France -- chasing gold at the Paris Olympics has been floated -- he could decide to hang up the boots entirely.

No one would begrudge him the decision either, after everything he's put into the game in Australia and globally. Pushed to the brink for years on end, the weight of what was expected of the Wallabies hero and shouldering the burden of subpar results for close to a decade has weighed heavily on the star.

An admired leader, Hooper has had to front press after more losses than wins, wearing the heavy responsibility of captaining a failing national side struggling to find its place in Australia's crowded sporting marketplace while continuing criticism of the program has taken its toll.

He's been one of the few constants that Wallabies fans have looked to as a long list of coaches have come in to revive the failing program, only to then be shown the door as off-field issues also reared their ugly heads.

Just two years after making his Wallabies debut and in just his 30th Test, Hooper became the second youngest Wallaby to captain ever. Eight Tests later, Hooper sat beside then coach Ewen McKenzie as he fronted media and announced his resignation after a heartbreaking 29-28 Bledisloe Cup loss. It came after weeks of media firestorm that Hooper was forced to front following a confrontation between Kurtley Beale and former staffer Di Patston on board a flight to South America before a Rugby Championship Test against Argentina.

He'd be in a similar situation years later during the 2019 Rugby World Cup when Michael Cheika fell on his sword following the Wallabies' limp performances and eventual quarterfinal exit. Hooper had also been forced to defend Rugby Australia months earlier after the governing body terminated Israel Folau's contract following several anti-gay social media posts, and bring together a fractured playing group thereafter.

It was a year that weighed heavily on his mind.

"Not well. It was a hard time, it was a hard time for everyone," Hooper told Nick McArdle, host of the The Playmakers' Playbook podcast. "No matter what capacity, it was hard because it involved the public. It was a very big thing.

"World Cup last year is going to live with me forever. That was the worst thing, you get knocked out in the quarterfinal and you get sent home on the Monday... you're just thinking about what you could have done [differently]."

As COVID-19 struck Hooper would also play a lead role in often times tense pay negotiations between RA and the Rugby Union Players' Association. With play halted and uncertainty about Super Rugby's future, the Wallabies captain was integral to getting a deal signed, even going as far as to accept a $70,000 a month pay cut in order to keep the game afloat.

Despite the many off-field issues that have dogged the Wallabies during his time in the gold jersey, his performances have never wavered or dipped, regularly outperforming everyone on the field, carrying the flag for a side that often struggled to keep up or reach the heights of their inspirational leader.

Hooper may have failed to claim a World Cup or win back the Bledisloe, but a 2015 Rugby Championship title, a World Cup final appearance, 2014 Super Rugby title and four John Eales Medals will see his career remembered as one of the all-time rugby greats.

The end of the Hooper era has been as swift as its rise, and while the flanker deserved a spectacular ending at the World Cup, there's no doubt his focus has already turned to how he can help the Wallabies in whatever role required, while all that's left for the Wallabies and their fans is to thank him for his decade-long contribution to the jersey.

There may yet be an SOS through injury, but for now Hooper's 125-Test career is over.

A Wallabies great without a shadow of a doubt, no one will dispute his place in Australian rugby folklore.