What do you do when your religious beliefs conflict with your chosen sport? And how does this play out when your chosen sport is also your job?
Will Hopoate is 23 years old and is a brilliant Australian rugby league player. He lines out at full-back, centre or on the wing in the National Rugby League (NRL).
Except on Sundays.
Hopoate will not play for his side Canterbury Bulldogs in any Sunday match this year — he is Mormon and his desire not to play on Sundays is to be respected by his club.
He will miss at lease three regular season games in the NRL and the NRL Grand Final is also played on a Sunday.
It says much for Hopoate’s strength of conviction that back in 2011 — when he was considered just about the hottest rugby league prospect in the southern hemisphere — he turned his back on the game and embarked on a two-year Mormon mission.
This was despite clubs all over the NRL pursuing his services and offering lucrative contracts.
Initially — back then in 2011 — Hopoate appeared committed to re-signing for the club he then played for: Manly Sea Eagles. Asked if he planned to return to Manly after his two-year mission, Hopoate was quoted as saying: “Definitely. It is the club I love. Manly is the club I grew up supporting.”
Nonetheless, shortly afterwards – in Autumn 2011 – Hopoate signed a deal for Parramatta Eels, reputed to be worth $500,000 per season, commencing from the end of his Mormon mission in 2014.
On his return, Hopoate struggled to find his form for the Eels, but last year he appeared set to agree a new three-year contract for that team.
This deal never materialised and Hopoate has lodged an Australian Supreme Court claim for damages amounting to some $1.83m — that claim is currently before the courts.
In the meantime, Hopoate signed for Canterbury Bulldogs, where his wish to miss Sunday games and training has been agreed to.
Hopoate simply explained he was following scripture on the meaning of Sunday: “It’s a holy day reserved for holy activities like attending church and studying the scriptures. Also, where possible, we abstain from work and recreation.”
The Bulldogs coach Des Hasler said: “His beliefs distinguish him. This is what makes him tick. We are very proud to have such a person within our walls. To deny something that is so fundamental to a person is to deny that person the right to be who they are.” And there is surely also the calculation that respect for Hopoate’s ‘No Sunday Play’ desires will foster a state of mind that will see him fulfill early promise and become the most prolific try-scorer in rugby league in Australia.
Either way, the reaction across Australia has largely been one of respect for what Hopoate and Canterbury have chosen to do.
This is a respect that is rooted in the widespread view that Hopoate is a decent, well-liked human being.
Perhaps the key to this story lies with Des Hasler. Hasler is a hugely successful coach — and also an interesting one. He opened this season’s Canterbury campaign with a quote from George Washington, the first President of the United States: “We should not look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.”
Hasler draws widely from sources as disparate as JK Rowling and Mahatma Gandhi when he seeks to lead his players. His background as a primary school teacher who also played international rugby league suggests a potent mix of abilities.
While an apparent broader perspective on life presumably influenced Hasler in his dealings with Will Hopoate, something much more powerful is surely crucial.
Hasler previously coached Will Hopoate’s father. John Hopoate was the acknowledged ultimate ‘bad boy’ in Australian Rugby League — indeed, he was properly notorious.
The roll-call of his misdemeanours is stunning and saw him become the ‘most suspended player’ in modern Rugby League history in Australia.
Eventually, he was sacked by his club, but not before a disciplinary meeting at the NRL saw John Hopoate being told that he had “an appalling record”. Even Hopoate’s defence counsel acknowledged his “notoriety” and the “unsavoury incidents” of the past.
This extended from repeated violent conduct on the field to (and there’s no delicate way to put this) poking his fingers into the backsides of rival players.
John Hopoate subsequently became Australian heavyweight boxing champion, but the controversy continues.
While his son was taking time out on a Mormon mission, John Hopoate was pleading guilty in court to attempting to intimidate a traffic warden who was giving him a ticket.
As well as verbal threats, police said CCTV footage showed him making a ‘throat-cutting gesture’.
The wisdom of looking at someone’s life from afar and passing judgments on the decisions they make is highly questionable, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the behaviour of John Hopoate has heavily influenced his son in terms of his religious commitment and his former coach in terms of his acceptance of that commitment.
What will also be interesting to observe, however, is how this story will play out in the coming months.
What will happen if the Canterbury Bulldogs are short key players for vital Sunday matches?
What will happen if injury strikes and Will Hopoate is the only fit full-back available for a Sunday match?
And what if Canterbury reach the Grand Final —pulled there on a tide of Hopoate’s surging runs.
Will he (and his club) be able to resist the urge to seek a special exemption to a self- imposed rule?
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