Is there any top-tier player in the NRL who has been as inconsistent as Will Hopoate? Since his return from his Mormon mission a couple of years ago, he’s been continally touted as the the next great thing – for the Eels, for the Blues and for the game at large – culminating with Canterbury-Bankstown’s decision to get rid of Tim Lafai last year to make room for him on their squad. While Lafai’s game hadn’t always been consistent either, it was nevertheless a decision that left a lot of Bulldogs fans scratching their heads, especially since the departure of Trent Hodkinson for the Knights, and the need to build a new halves pair around Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye, meant that Canterbury-Bankstown need to be looking for consistency, stability and reliability above all else. While Hoppa has certainly had his moments since returning to the game, he seemed like the last thing that the Bulldogs needed to regain the momentum that led them to the 2014 Grand Final. And yet there is a sense in which Hoppa has become one of the NRL’s most valuable players – not just in terms of his occasional moments of inspiration, but because he holds a fairly important symbolic significance within the game at large that puts him quite a unique position in terms of his media presence and profile.
Put simply, Hoppa’s story assuages several of the key fears that plague the NRL. First and foremost, the fact that he spent two years in a Mormon mission before returning to first-grade football has turned him into something of a poster boy for NRL values, as well as for a version of the NRL that is free from scandal – and he’s certainly one of the cleanest players in the game in terms of his behaviour and reputation off the field. Generally, the NRL – and Australian sport more generally – is a bit sceptical of any kind of overt ideological, political or religion affiliation, especially when players are as open and vocal about it as Hopoate. At the same time, however, there’s also a tacit acceptance that strong beliefs are OK so long as they are deflected into the game, and so long as the player isn’t pushy about it, and Hoppa’s taciturn nature both on and off the field – he’s a convivial player, but not an especially demonstrative player – has tended to make his religious commitment a bit easier to swallow for sporting commentators. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Mormonism is his denomination of choice, since the NRL tends to be most amenable to these kinds of muscular Christianity – or at least muscular monotheism – with the result that Hopoate’s vision is often presented as having actually contributed to his hard man persona on the field. It’s no surprise, then, that the tabloid media has often framed him with a Steeden in one hand and a Mormon Bible in the other, nor that he was seen as one of the most balanced of players upon his return to the Eels in 2014.
With that kind of persona behind him, Hoppa has often been framed as a kind of muscular enforcer of the values that should inform the NRL, which is interesting given that Mormonism is by no means an orthodox religious position in Australia, while in America it is often figured as a slippery slope towards sexual “deviance.” In fact, one of the interesting things about NRL is the way in which its values are often articulated by players whose religious affiliation – such as Mormonism and Islam – falls outside the more conventional Australian status quo, which tends to be Christian in tradition and background, if not always in belief or practice. Of course, you could argue that NRL players naturally gravitate towards religions in which the kinds of masculine braggadocio they display on the field is rewarded as an ethical achievement, but there’s also a sense in which the Christian agenda so often promulgated by the religious right doesn’t really address working-class families and communities in the way it promises, with the constant appeal to “family values” often serving to just mask policies and legislation that operate to break up working families through casualised labour, flexible workplaces and increasing precarity. For that reason, Hoppa’s Mormonism – so long as he is sufficiently “discreet” about it – has often been mobilised by the media as an image of the muscular, working-class religion that NRL forms for so many fans and supporters.
As a result, Hoppa not only fulfils an important symbolic role for the NRL as a whole, but for the struggling teams that still have a predominantly working-class fanbase – those teams, you might say, that haven’t been gentrified in the recent wave of glamourisation that has seemed to gravitate outfits like the Roosters and the Storm more towards the exclusive realms of Rugby Union (with the Chooks, in particular, often feeling as if they’re competing with Tahs for football supremacy in the CBD and at Allianz). Of all those teams, there’s none that has had such a sorry history over the last decade than the Eels, with the retirement of Hindy seeming to destine them to be wooden-spooners for years to come. Even their most recent Grand Final appearance was tainted by the way in which the Storm used their resources against them – a reneged Storm victory is not the same as an actual Eels victory – while the purchase of quality players – Peats, Foran, Watmough – and the discovery of new talents – M’au, Radradra – still hasn’t quite solidified into a squad guaranteed to secure a position in the top eight. If Parra’s stellar performance at the Nines this year is anything to go by, they may have in fact reached the tipping point, but that just makes it all the more ironic that this is the first year at the Nines that they haven’t had Hoppa on their side. Sure, he may not have been a regular Nines contestant, but the fact that they’re capable of reaching their strongest without him does make you pause to wonder why he was so often presented as the next great hope of Pirtek Stadium.
In large part, it has to come down to that salvational and symbolic role he holds within the NRL at large, as well as the particular way in which he speaks to the NRL’s working-class fanbase. A couple of years ago, there was no team that needed Hoppa’s mystique like the Eels, where he became such a central part of Parra myth-making that he has only recently been surpassed by Radradra, whose record-breaking performances at the Nines has seemed to confirm him as Pirtek’s next great visionary. It’s no coincidence, either, that Parra tends to be the team in which muscular religiosity is most openly expressed and tolerated, thanks in part to Tim Mannah’s presence as captain, with the result that Hopoate seemed integral to the team, symbolically, even when his actual performance and contribution was often fairly scant. The same goes for the Blues as well, since there are no end of players who could have probably put in a better performance for New South Wales. In fact, it was arguably during Origin that Hoppa first started to get his nickname as Floppa, partly because his inconsistencies were more visible at an Origin level, but also because there’s considerably more riding on the Blues than there is on the Eels. It’s an interesting development, then, to see him make the move to the Dogs, since it begs the question of whether Des Hasler thinks that Canterbury-Bankstown need the kind of culture change that Hoppa’s symbolic heft can help facilitate. At the very least, Hodkinson’s movement to Newcastle – one of the most disappointing trades in a long time for this Bulldogs fan – is bound to deflate the club a bit, and while Hoppa can’t compete with him for sheer talent, his presence and synergy with Des may help the team rally their spirits a bit.
On top of all that, there’s another, final reason why Hoppa has such a symbolic significance within the NRL as a whole, but this role is so integral and important that it’s almost unspeakable. Put simply, Hoppa’s story and presence helps assuage fears about the homoerotic potential of Rugby League. More than any other football code, Rugby League depends on intense, plosive and visceral contact between men, as well as highly physical bonding and banter rituals, both on and off the field. And while I don’t want to say anything too trite or reductive about the “gayness” of League, there is definitely a homosocial element that sits a bit uncomfortably with the more staunchly heterosexual elements of the game. In many ways, I think that the sex scandals that periodically plague League – which nearly always involve players getting naked and doing something weird around each other or with each other – is a way of addressing and assuaging this tension, which perhaps explains why these scandals tend to cop so much more flack and media hysteria than the more tangible assault history of a player like, say, Blake Ferguson.
Of course, as John Hopoate’s son, Hoppa has a lot to live down in that respect. Whether or not Hoppa Senior was gay is anyone’s guess – I’m not definitely sure that he was and not definitely sure that he wasn’t. What I do sense is that his split-second brainsnap against the Cowboys in 2001 represented a possibility that always seems to hang around the fringes of the game, even if it’s rarely directly articulated. If anything, the fact that Hoppa Senior didn’t openly identify as gay and didn’t appear to be gay made his gesture all the more unsettling to the NRL, since it suggested that there was something about the game itself that encourages this kind of homosocial curiosity. That becomes particularly clear when you compare him to those few players, like Ian Roberts, who have openly come out as gay and embraced the stereotypes that the media projects upon them in order to definitively separate their “footy life” from their “gay life.” In the case of John Hopoate, it was impossible for the media to separate those two sides of his behaviour in any discernible way, not least because the infamous “fingering” incident could almost – just almost – have been an extreme, if logical, conclusion of his brutal tackling tendencies. As a result, the Hopoate question has never been resolved, which has turned itinto something of a running joke within the NRL, but the kind of joke that remains in circulation as a way of assuaging long-standing and pervasive anxieties.
As a result, even if Hoppa Junior hadn’t become a footy player he would have a lot to deal with in terms of his father’s media profile. To return to exactly the same code of football, however, took a particularly pointed courage, not least because it meant that he would have to provide some kind of closure to the John Hopoate narrative if he was to have any chance of being taken on his own terms. To some extent, the Mormon mission – and his calm, balanced persona more generally – has been his strategy for doing that, and it’s remarkable how much it has succeeded. Not only does Hoppa feel utterly disconnected from his father’s scandal, but that scandal itself has started to recede into the distant past as Hoppa’s career has grown more visible as well. Of course, that’s partly because Hoppa Senior has had so many other infractions and scandals since then – in some ways, he’s every NRL executive’s worst nightmare of a player, above and beyond his behaviour on the field, with the result that Hoppa Junior has also offered up every NRL executive’s dream of a redemption narrative. In terms of the specific incident against the Cowboys, however, Will Hopoate has arguably put his father’s reputation to rest in a way that the media never could, by himself inhabiting the spotlight in such a way as to allow Hoppa Senior’s privacy to become his own again. In fact, so scandalous was the John Hopoate incident that it could perhaps only be resolved a generation later, with the result that there’s always something about Hoppa’s performance on the field that feels like a tribute to his father, and a retort to the gossip, rumour-mongering and knowing speculation that revolved around him at the peak of his media profile. And perhaps that’s why I find Hoppa endearing despite his inconsistent performance – in an age of massive media scrutiny, he’s found a way to preserve and intensify the privacy of one of the most scrutinised players in Rugby League history.