Bath Rugby Club captain Stuart Hooper was forced to call time on his illustrious playing career last month. Here he reflects on his time playing the game at the top level.
When I was eighteen, my parents drove me to North London to drop me off at what would be new my new living quarters: a horrible flat above a kebab house. I’m from the middle of the countryside, and I’d been signed by a professional rugby team, Saracens, so the expectations I had for my move down South were quite different to the reality. Here I was, an eighteen-year-old Devonian in this house in a totally new city with five other lads. I think my mum cried all the way back to Devon, bless her.
The next day I started to train as a professional rugby player, which was a full-on initiation. Sarries was a really good, professional set-up even back then, influenced by the some stars of the world game who were there. I’d gone from being on summer holiday with my parents to being a professional rugby player, so once you’re in that high-performance environment your age is irrelevant: you’re expected to maintain the same standards as the other guys.
I was pretty nervous, if I’m honest. Coming from schools rugby, it’s a big, big step up; suddenly, you’re playing against your heroes, international stars. I’m not going to say it all came easily, because it was hard work. I realised that my defining attribute was how hard I was willing to work, because I was never the most talented player.
My first hurdle came after the end of pre-season. I’d done alright up to that point in terms of being competitive and trying my hardest, but it turned out that I needed an operation on my groin, and that really knocked me back. Any young player coming into the game might think it’s all plain sailing, but this groin operation had a big impact on me, and I started to doubt myself for a few weeks.
It was at this low point that I received a letter from my old man in the post. What he wrote made me believe in myself more, whilst showing that other people go through tough times too. In my head, I was thinking I wanted to give up after only three months because it was tough. But you realise that setbacks are a part of life and you just have to push on. I still have that letter my dad sent me to this day.
I ended up playing around fifty games at Sarries and captained the first team at eighteen, so I’m pretty pleased when I look back at that chapter of my life. My personality back then could be described as fairly quiet but straight up. South Africa’s World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar was at the club at the time, and he made the choice to make me captain. The idea behind it was that it’s better to be a young captain in a winning team, so that you can learn from the other people. I had Tim Horan, Richard Hill, Paul Wallace, Abdel Benazzi, people who’d captained their country, in the team with me. There was also Danny Grewcock and Scott Murray. It was brilliant because they were so supportive. I did it for the European Challenge Cup campaign that year. I think in the first home game I captained we won 151-3, so it was a good start.
After Saracens, I went to Leeds. My time at Sarries was good, and I learnt an awful lot, but we went through about four or five different coaches when I was there. I wanted a bit of a change and some stability. I’d heard very good things about Leeds. I’d heard they treated their people well and that they were a tight group. They had very good coaches there too, including the Welshman Phil Davies, who’d brought them up through the leagues. Stuart Lancaster was Academy coach when I arrived, then in my last two years he became head coach, which is how we ended up forming a real good friendship. I was there for five years, and captain for about three and a half.
Leeds was very much a club of very close people; not necessarily stars. The pressures were very different. There weren’t World Cup winners floating around the changing rooms. There was a real desire to work for each other and I thrived in that environment. I actually loved it and learnt a lot from it. We won the Cup in 2005, which was especially pleasing.
Living up North was different to my situation in London, where I was on an Academy wage and didn’t really do a huge amount outside of training and playing. Leeds was a different scenario. I lived with a good friend of mine from school, Andrew Tucker, who was at university there. We had the best time, which was helped by the fact that Leeds is such a great city. Of course, I trained hard and was professional, but I made sure to enjoy myself when the opportunity arose. It was during this time that I met Kate, who was a uni student. We had Max, our first son, in April, then in June we moved to Bath.
Bath was very attractive proposition. I’d been at Leeds and we’d been relegated, so I wanted to stay to help the club come back into the Premiership. I achieved that, then realised that I wanted to go and win trophies, be a better player and test myself in a new environment. The lure of the city and the Rec, which I remembered from my childhood, was significant so I decided to come to Bath.
The Club has changed an awful lot in the eight years that I’ve been here. To go from where it was when I arrived (training at the university, training at Lambridge, then food at the Rec) to where we are today, it’s pretty unrecognisable.
I’ve been forced to retire due to injury, but I’m not bitter in any way shape or form. I’m relieved I’ve stopped playing the game in one piece and feel unbelievably privileged to have led this club for the past five years, and to have played here for eight years.
The biggest thing for me is the people. It’s all about the people I’ve had the chance to meet, the people that have had an impact on my life, and the people that continue to support me from inside and outside the Club. On the weekend you see a guy running about on the pitch with fourteen other guys on his team, but the reality is that there’s a vast amount of support behind that person. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without my wife, Kate. She inspires me to do what I do and is an incredible woman in her own right. She's the best Mum to our four boys, who completely adore her. She’s the major influence in my life.
The playing part has come to an end, but I’m comfortable with it. There’s a different perspective on everything now, because I won’t be a player any more. The reality is that it’s different, but it’s exciting at the same time. You can’t be a player forever; there comes a point in every player’s life where they simply aren’t capable of doing the job on the pitch any more, but you have an ability to then use what you’ve learnt to influence the players of tomorrow, so that’s something I’ll hopefully be doing.
I never had a destination in mind as an eighteen-year-old, I just wanted to be myself every day. Part of being myself is trying to be better all the time. I managed to do that through most of my career, albeit with a few setbacks due to injury
The Club has been brilliant to me, hosting my friends and family at today’s game. It’s an opportunity for me to say thank you, and a real kind of watershed moment for me: my playing days are now over.
It may be quite a difficult day for me personally, but special nonetheless.
This article features in today's Bath Rugby v Leicester Tigers match programme.