Waratahs’ finals hopes hit hard as hamstring grounds Hooper
THE Waratahs' hopes of topping the Australian conference have suffered a major setback with national and provincial captain Michael Hooper to miss the rest of the regular season.
Hooper limped off clutching at his left hamstring after 16 minutes during the Wallabies' heartbreaking 20-16 loss to Ireland in their series decider at Allianz Stadium.
The injury is expected to rule him out for four weeks, which would see him in a race to make the finals should the Waratahs, indeed, qualify.
He will miss Friday night's crunch match against the Rebels in Melbourne - who themselves look set to lose their captain Adam Coleman due to injury - as well as the home fixtures against the Sunwolves and Brumbies.
The Super Rugby finals start on July 20.
Since joining the Waratahs in 2013, Hooper has missed a total of 53 minutes in 93 matches played.
His injury will see his run of 79 consecutive Super Rugby matches for the Waratahs - the second longest at the club behind David Lions' record streak of 83 consecutive matches - come to an end.
The Waratahs will also be sweating on the outcome of Israel Folau's World Rugby disciplinary hearing, after the star fullback was cited following the Wallabies' defeat.
With three rounds remaining, the Waratahs (third) hold a one-point lead over the Rebels (eighth) at the top of the Australian conference.
Adding to the significance of Friday night's clash, the winner of the Australian conference is guaranteed a home quarter-final.
Hooper's injury will likely see Will Miller shift from blindside to his preferred position of openside flanker.
If the Waratahs start Test forward Ned Hanigan in the second-row, Michael Wells is expected to move to blindside flanker and Jed Holloway come in at No 8.
The alternative would be for Tom Staniforth to start alongside Rob Simmons in the second-row, which would allow Hanigan to stay in his preferred position at blindside flanker.
Hooper's absence will see the Waratahs name a new captain, with Bernard Foley or Damien Fitzpatrick - if he's chosen ahead of Test rake Tolu Latu - the likely candidates to fill the leadership void.
Club captain Nick Phipps is another contender and captained the Wallabies against the Barbarians last October.
The Rebels, too, have injury concerns.
Coleman sustained an abductor injury against Ireland and looks set to join Wallabies halfback Will Genia on the sidelines, who will miss the rest of the Super Rugby season after having surgery on his fractured arm.