Helping run the Rugby World Cup - from Waiheke

From a teenage volunteer at Team New Zealand 20 years ago, Aucklander Michelle Hooper has become a sought-after organiser of pinnacle world sports events. Now the mum of three is helping deliver next month’s Rugby World Cup.

Within the space of just three minutes, Michelle Hooper can wrap up a meeting with her Rugby World Cup organising team in Japan, and then collect her kids from school on Waiheke Island.

“It’s the way of the future,” says Hooper, who holds the globe-crossing video conference calls every day.

Now in the final throes of delivering next month’s Rugby World Cup, she talks to her Japanese team from the comfort of her home, with its enviable outlook on the Hauraki Gulf.

“I don’t always show them the view - that would be a bit mean,” she laughs.

For the last two years, Hooper has been helping with the delivery of the world’s largest rugby tournament. And she’s been able to do much of that from back in Auckland, where she holds down her No.1 role – as mum to three children under the age of eight.

Hooper’s job title within the RWC organising committee is team services lead. Her team essentially looks after the needs of all of the World Cup rugby sides – from their travel arrangements to their training venues; where they sleep and what they eat, right down to who washes their muddy socks.

She’s been flying to Japan for one week of every month, to work with her team on the ground and teach them the ropes – having held crucial roles in the last two World Cup tournaments. World Rugby asked her to help out again. 

Hooper is a trouble-shooter, making sure everything is perfect for the competing teams, and smoothing the waters with the rugby team managers if it’s not. She devises contingency scenarios, like 'what if a typhoon hits Japan in the middle of the tournament'?

She helps to prepare the international teams for cultural differences – like switching shoes. “When 50 people turn up at an indoor training centre in Japan, they all have to have a pair of indoor shoes. It’s culturally unacceptable to wear outside shoes inside the gym,” she explains.

Players can’t display their tattoos at public baths or hotel pools - “so we’re providing all the teams with rash shirts”.

“Our job is to take the pressure off the team manager, and to make sure the players all have a good night’s sleep, good food and great training facilities,” she says.

“I always think of the sacrifices that athletes have made to get here, and they may only have one chance. So it’s my job to do the best I can to make it the most amazing experience for them.

“I’m just so proud to be a Kiwi, sharing my knowledge and making a difference in another country.”

The influence of Black Magic

Hooper’s dream to be involved in major sports events was born back in 1995, when she was a sixth former at Epsom Girls Grammar.

She’d watched on TV as Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup for the first time, and got the day off school for the victory parade down Queen Street. “I had my red socks pulled up to my knees, hanging from a pedestrian light pole, and I said to myself ‘I’m going to be part of that in the future’,” she remembers.

When she left school she volunteered to work for Team New Zealand, as the shore base assistant, in their 2000 defence of the Auld Mug. She was 19.

“It was such a great foundation for a career in sport,” Hooper says. “I loved being part of the high performance environment, with that ‘one common goal’ philosophy. You’re working with athletes, engineers, administrators and leaders – everyone the best in their field – and you can’t help but want to be your best self as part of that team.”

She worked for Team NZ through two defence campaigns in Auckland, at the same time studying for a bachelor of business studies. Inspired by an entrepreneurial father, she headed down the high performance sport career path.

Michelle Hooper has been part of many major sports events - including general co-ordinator of the 2014 Fifa Girls Football Olympics in China. Photo: Getty Images. 

Working with the New Zealand Olympic Committee, Hooper was assistant manager of the New Zealand team at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

One of the things she’s most proud of was helping develop New Zealand’s youth Olympic teams – managing them at the Commonwealth Youth Games and the Australian Youth Olympics. “I set it up from scratch – the branding, the uniforms; I even got Nesian Mystik to write us a team song, which was one of the highlights of my career,” she laughs.

After working for the Oracle Racing team at the 2007 America’s Cup in Valencia, Hooper returned home with the goal of being part of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

She gained experience working for Auckland Rugby as the event manager, running all of the matches at Eden Park, before heading the sponsorship team.

Then she scored her dream job – as team services manager for the Rugby World Cup. “It was the best opportunity to showcase all of my skills, combining all my passions and saying ‘let’s do this really well’,” Hooper says.

She worked with rugby regions around the country and the foreign embassies of competing teams to “make it great” – arranging team logistics, welcome ceremonies and events engaging teams with Kiwi communities.

“I’m really proud of the job we did in New Zealand – and it helped we had four million people behind us who love the game,” she says.

Hooper then got to taste a different kind of football, as general co-ordinator of the 2014 Fifa Girls Youth Olympics in China, and competition director of the 2015 Fifa U20 World Cup in Auckland.

But rugby kept calling, and she was asked to be the match commissioner for the Twickenham ground at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. “I had seven matches and it was a euphoric experience, with sell-out crowds of 82,000,” she says.   

In 2017, Hooper was just getting her management consultancy up and running - while “being fully committed to being a mum first” - when she got another call from World Rugby.

“They said they needed someone to help lead the team services team in Japan for the next World Cup. Someone who could come in, solve the problems and get them on track,” she says. It was a six month job. 

“I said, ‘that’s cool, but I can’t move there’. So we agreed I’d spend one week a month in Japan, and do the rest by video conferencing every day when the kids were at school. That is the future for everyone - no time wasted commuting.”

Having built a team who could deliver the event, Hooper was asked to stay on. She agreed, but only if she could spend the majority of her time at home with her family on Waiheke.  

“As a mum of three, the kids will always come first,” she says. “The hardest thing is re-immersion with your children when you come home. The washing, cleaning, getting them to school on time, dealing with chicken pox! I’m fortunate to have a really good community of help around me.”

In a fortnight’s time, Michelle will head back to Japan to stay through to the end of the six-week tournament (she's running a half marathon before she goes). Her family will join her there in October. “I’ve always said I will never be away from them for more than three weeks,” she says.

Geared to be world leaders

One of the biggest challenges Japan has faced in delivering this World Cup has been meeting the high bar set by the English four years ago.  

“This is a world-first for Asia. There are huge challenges – culturally and the way business is done,” Hooper says. “You have to have a lot of discussions with many different people – it’s called nemawashi, where you have to set the scene for change, and consult with everyone about how it will be changed. It takes time and you need to be patient.

“But they are very respectful and courteous. And they’re very proud to be hosting the Rugby World Cup. I keep telling them that what we deliver will be the result of a huge amount of hard work and commitment.”

Hooper has already taken so much from this experience.

“I’ve learned the biggest limitation is your mindset. And as New Zealanders we have no excuse because we have every opportunity in this country. We have so many competitive advantages – No. 8 wire mentality, being resourceful. We're geared to be world leaders,” she says.

“It’s really exciting thinking about 2021 for sport in New Zealand – especially with all the great women’s events coming here. It’s the opportunity to showcase how fabulously we do things. We might not have big cash reserves – but we’re all about relationships, connections and people.”

Former Japanese rugby player Ippei Asada with the letter he received from Michelle Hooper eight years ago. Photo: supplied.

Those connections can be life-long. Soon after Hooper began working in Japan, one of the members of the match management team approached her with a letter.

Ippei Asada was a Japanese halfback who was called into his national side, coached by Sir John Kirwan, as an injury replacement during the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

The letter he held was from the 2011 organising committee, welcoming him to New Zealand. And it was signed by Hooper. It was the only World Cup that Asada went to as a player.

“He’d kept that letter all this time. That’s why every person’s experience matters, because they may only do that once,” Hooper says. “It’s about doing the best you can to make all their sacrifice worthwhile.”

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