‘Hoppa’ The Man Who Doesn’t Care
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Cover Art
You either love John Hopoate or you despise him, there is simply no in-between. His entire playing career he played his way and his style and regardless of whether you respect it or not, it yielded some pretty damn good results. As a member of the Sea Eagles, he featured in three Grand Finals, winning one. He also played in over 200 games of professional Footy and scored over 80 tries in the process, as well as having played for all of City/NSW, Australia, and Tonga.
‘Hoppa’ never shied away from making a big hit or a strong tackle and that’s where the hate pours in. In a 2005 match against the Tigers, he struck Keith Galloway on the head with his elbow, immediately knocking him unconscious. He copped a record 17-game suspension for his actions. There were also several incidents where Hopoate inserted his finger into several players anuses while attempting tackles.
Safe to say he never backed down from anything. I was able to talk to the man himself about all of it and more right here.
To start off with, what are your thoughts on the ‘Keith Galloway incident’?
“There were six or seven exact same tackles during the year, and they didn’t even look at it.”
“Maybe I went/jumped a little bit higher than I was supposed to, but no player ever goes out there with the intention of trying to take someone’s head off. It was just a misjudged tackle and it was overkill. With my previous suspensions, it was an easy call for the judiciary to give me such a long ban.”
Now moving onto the infamous ‘wedgie’ tackles, did they deserve the heat they copped?
“The media made it so big and said I was trying to hurt them. Players didn’t want it, but I wasn’t hurting them. They didn’t feel violated, I was only probing in there for a split second and that was it.”
“During my suspensions, the NRL should’ve paid me for taking the game global. The league tried for years to make it known worldwide and they couldn’t do it, but I did.”
You were born in Tonga and are incredibly proud of your heritage. How would you compare representing them to playing for the Kangaroos?
“My goal as a kid growing up was to play for Australia as I grew up playing Rugby League here. When I told my parents I was playing for Australia, they were over the moon.”
“But, when I told them I was playing for Tonga, they started crying. That’s our homeland, that’s our heritage and that’s where we’re from. So, playing for Tonga was a bit more special.”
When players such as Will Hopoate, Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita play for Tonga over the likes of Australia and New Zealand, what does that mean?
“It’s excellent, especially when you consider the big money some of those players are walking away from in order to represent Tonga.”
“They’re choosing to play for their heritage which means a lot more to the players and to see them do that is unbelievable. It has helped Tonga immensely.”
Even some of the greatest players never win a Premiership. Can you describe the feeling to me of what it’s like to achieve something so special?
“I was lucky enough to win one and it’s unbelievable. It’s a feeling that will never leave you and you’ll have it for the rest of your life. You can always look back on it with your teammates that you played with and talk about it for years to come.”
“Will also won one at the club I played at which felt better than when I won it. As a parent, you want nothing better for your kids than for their achievements to be one-hundred times better than what yours were.”
Thoughts on the 1997 Grand Final?
“The worst moment of my whole sporting career was losing that Grand Final. We were leading all game and then for them (Newcastle) to score with just seventy seconds left to play was deflating.”
In the 2002 NRL season, you ran for 3976m’s with the ball, the best in the entire competition. Did you always know you could achieve such highs?
“The previous season I was suspended for eight games because I turned up drunk, so for nine games had to play Reserve Grade.”
“I always knew I could do it during the season after, it was just about actually going out there trying to get my metres up and not be suspended as much. That was a goal of mine that year, to make good metres in every game that I played in.”
A couple of years prior to that was the Super League era. Did you ever worry about your future in the game?
“When the Super League war happened, Manly stuck solid with the ARL. In hindsight, we should’ve gone to the Super League because they paid a lot more money and kept on playing in the NRL when things were at peace again. I wish we went there instead.”
What was the experience like of playing for Manly again after the Northern Eagles became defunct?
“North Sydney fans came with flags and everything, carrying on a bit. But I don’t blame them. The players got on really well, it was just the hierarchy who didn’t. We did get a bit of heat, but we were simply happy we were playing, so we didn’t really care.”
Brookvale Oval (now Lottoland) or Central Coast Stadium?
“Brookie was 100X better than playing on the Central Coast. Brookvale Oval was our home while playing on the Central Coast was like playing an away game.”
There’s yourself, Will Plays with Canterbury at the moment, Albert with Canberra, and Jamil just finished up a season with the Broncos. How does the Hopoate family produce so many quality NRL players?
“People die to have one son play in the NRL, we’re lucky enough to have three. There’s a lot of toughness coming through these kids. We don’t expect them to score six tries a game, but don’t waste our time standing around on the field doing nothing either.”
“At full-time don’t worry about going into the changing rooms, come into our car for a family huddle before you go back to your teammates.”
“There’s a lot of them just watching me play First Grade, along with Will making it, it just makes the other siblings want it even more. And there’s still another four to go.”
How do you think Manly will fare this season?
“I think Manly will be in for another rough year. They haven’t really brought anybody in and without Tommy Turbo I think they’re going to struggle again.”
Has the game gotten softer compared to your era?
“Yeah, it has. It’s not the players’ fault, it’s just what the people who run the game have turned it into.”
“All these guys get knocked out so easily now because they’re not trained for it. Back when I was playing, you’d get hit around the head every now and then and be used to it. Now as soon as something touches their head, the opposition is penalised.”
Would you change any of the events that happened throughout your career?
“I would’ve liked to have finished on my own note instead of being kicked out of the game. But in saying that I wouldn’t change anything else. Whether that’s me being suspended for the ‘finger thing’ or the 18 weeks I copped for the Keith Galloway tackle. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for all of those events that happened.”
Many thanks to John for doing this interview.