Sean Hoppe: the original ‘Beast’

How the Warriors could do with a Sean Hoppe now.

As the Auckland-based club struggles to cope with the loss of injured superstar Manu Vatuvei and a 0-2 start to the 2011 season, former Kiwi international Hoppe finds himself slaving away on the new Brisbane Airport Link after a long career that saw him play for four clubs in three different countries.

“Yeah I’m in construction these days,” the 40-year-old, who has lived in Queensland for the past six years, explains.

“It’s something that’s fairly new to me and I’m still learning as I go but I was ready for a change and it’s something I enjoy.”

Having played the final four years of his rugby league career for UK giants St Helens before retiring in 2002, Hoppe’s career has seen him try his hand at everything from building and property development to stints as both a referee and an assistant coach in the Bundaberg Rugby League competition.

He returned to Australia six years ago but had still spent much of his time flying back and forth between Bundaberg and Manchester in the UK until the global financial crisis saw his days in property come to a premature end.

“I was in England in total for nine years and for the past four and a half years I was flying back and forth but when the GFC hit, the property prices in the UK all tumbled,” he says.

“I was just renovating houses at the time so I guess I was doing a little bit of construction anyway, although not to the extent that I’m doing now.

“I was also working for the PCYC when I was in Bundaberg as the Indigenous Sport and Recreation Officer – I really loved that job – and was coaching and refereeing as well.

“They all sort of rolled into one because the people I worked with were all involved in rugby league.

“Ken Nagas’ family are all up that way, Mal Meninga’s family was there and Tony Rea’s father and brother were involved as well.

“So I was coaching and refereeing – I really enjoyed refereeing but I won’t be doing it this year, I’ll be missing it.”

Hoppe, whose father was from Brisbane, also began his professional rugby league career in Australia with Canberra in the early 1990s where he made a name for himself in the great Raiders sides that boasted the likes of Meninga, Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, Brad Clyde and Steve Walters.

He played 39 games for Canberra in 1992 and 1993 and would almost certainly have been a part of the club’s 1994 premiership-winning side had he not signed on to join the new Auckland Warriors franchise 12 months earlier.

“It was exciting to finally have a New Zealand side in the competition because it meant I could head home,” Hoppe recalls.

“Obviously I felt lucky to be able to play alongside some of the best players in the world at Canberra and I wanted to stay for the 1994 season before joining the Warriors in ’95 but when [former Raiders CEO] Kevin Neil found out I’d signed with the Warriors he told me I wouldn’t be playing first grade in ’94 and would have to play for West Belconnen instead.

“That’s when North Sydney showed some interest – because Daryl Halligan had just retired – so I spent a year with Norths before heading back to New Zealand.

“My only regret is missing that premiership win in ’94 because we knew we had the team to win it. We only bowed out of the semis in ’93 when Ricky Stuart went down injured and they went on to win it the following year. It was unfortunate to miss out.”

Despite his absence, Hoppe describes his four years and 88 games for Auckland as some of the best years of his life.

“That first year was amazing,” he says. “I mean, we didn’t know how we were going to go. We had players coming from the Auckland comp as well as England and Australia, we had different nationalities and it was all happening at once.

“It was exciting but we weren’t used to the travel. They seem to have gotten over that now, since Daniel Anderson came to the club (in 2001). They win as many away now as they do at home – it’s hard to pick!”

While he spent time with four clubs throughout his 250-game career (including 98 games for St Helens), Hoppe describes himself as a diehard Warriors fan these days and rarely misses a game.

“I definitely follow them wherever they go,” he laughs.

“I’ve already worked out that the Warriors are playing at 11am (Qld time) this Sunday so I’ll make sure I find somewhere to watch the game.

“Because I’m only renting in Brisbane at the moment I’ll have to go somewhere else… but that’s fine – I like to just sit down and watch the games by myself so I can watch them properly. I’m a bit of a tragic like that when it comes to following the Warriors!

“I’ve still got a soft spot for the Raiders and of course I follow St Helens in England – but the Warriors are my team.”

As for Ivan Cleary’s men in 2011, Hoppe believes their immediate success depends largely on the ability of the outside backs to cover for the loss of Vatuvei.

The giant winger will be sidelined until at least Round 9 with knee ligament damage suffered in his side’s Round 1 loss to Parramatta and the Warriors face an uphill battle to break their duck against St George Illawarra this Sunday having won just one of their past 12 games without Vatuvei on the field.

“It’s an amazing statistic but it goes to show how important he is,” Hoppe says.

“He scores tries and he saves tries as well.

“He knows who to hit and when to hit, so he is great in defence with those big hits.

“Obviously he scores plenty of tries as well and he does a lot of hard work to help out the forwards.

“I love watching the guy play – I actually told him a few years ago ‘You’re my favourite player’. Being a former winger I obviously enjoy watching the wingers go around.

“It’s no good that he’s out but it’s up to the other guys now.

“I thought Jerome Ropati was outstanding on the wing when Manu was injured in the Parramatta game, and Krisnan Inu is a skilful player so it’s not like they don’t have any options.

“Hopefully they can find their feet soon, but I think they’ll be right.

“They’ve had a slow start but I still think they’ll make the semi-finals and their slow start will be forgotten.”