Johannesburg: When Michael Hooper went down injured in the June Test series, many thought the Waratahs season would go down with him.
The influential No.7 was not just pivotal to the NSW game plan, he was their captain. How would the Waratahs fare at the pointy end of the Super Rugby season without their coolest head to guide them through on the field?
Fairly well, as it turns out. Semi-final well. Hooper’s injury thrust Bernard Foley into the captaincy and helped transform him from larrikin playmaker into a composed and emotionally intelligent captain.
There is no doubt the leadership role suits his game, too. The NSW and Australia No.10 piled on a career-best 25 points and delivered the inspirational half-time chat that helped pull his team back from the brink in the quarter-final against the Highlanders last week.
“He’s unreal,” forward Jed Holloway said. “He’s definitely different to Hoops. He can be very serious but he also knows when to have a good time and he’s much loved by this whole group.
“Every time he’s around us he’s always putting a smile on our face. I think that really suits him. In a really serious situation like a final, guys can be overawed by a situation but when you have a guy like Bernard come in cracking a joke just before we run out, or in the middle of a huddle out on the field, it takes the heat off and gets the guys out of the mindset of being under the pump.
“It takes a weight off their chests and lets the boys play.”
Foley’s seamless transition comes as no surprise to Chris Malone, who has worked closely with the 28-year-old for years, first as his kicking coach and now as the Waratahs attack coach.
Malone said it had been a pleasure to watch the “knockabout” young pup grow into the role of senior player and now captain.
“Bernard’s always been very good at backing his ability on the field and leading in that regard,” Malone said.
“Whereas finding the right time to say things, knowing how he has to guide the team at different times through training or during the week, and being that senior voice, that’s something he’s grown into.
“He’s a larrikin, he’s a knockabout guy, but the sign that he’s a really good captain is that now he can have that moment where it’s ‘righto boys, this is what we’ve got to do now’. The guys have got right behind him, it’s really good.”
It is clear Foley has brought to bear on the team his vast Test and Super Rugby experience, including two previous finals campaigns, a Super Rugby title and a World Cup final. This season, with its numerous highs and lows, has required all of the team’s senior players to dig deep into their back catalogues for wisdom and inspiration.
Last week Foley urged his teammates to “not die wondering” during the half-time break, when the Waratahs trailed the Highlanders 23-6. At the end of the match, television cameras captured him addressing the team in a circle. They lapped up every word.
If the Waratahs can defy the statistics and pull off a semi-final victory on the high veld on Saturday afternoon, Foley and the other senior players – Kurtley Beale, Nick Phipps, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons and Israel Folau – will need to dig deep again.
Malone said Foley’s leadership against the Highlanders showed they had it in them to pull off an upset in Johannesburg.
“Even though we were down, we still knew that wasn’t insurmountable. We knew we could come back and still win that game,” he said.
“[Foley’s] belief in the way we play and that of the other guys is probably the best thing, because they knew they could do it from a pretty tricky situation. That’s great going into big games, because you know you’re always going to be in it.”