Hook is put under starter's orders for grand finale

The Wales coach knows a thing or two about thoroughbreds and his handling of his two standout stand-offs has proved to be skilful indeed. Tim Glover reports
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The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, cannot believe his luck. Not only has he inherited a talented squad that has won him a Triple Crown but he is homing in on the Six Nations' version of the Gold Cup. France, in Cardiff on Saturday, stand in the way of a Grand Slam. Gatland, who has been operating from a position of luxury, evidently intends to get there by Hook or by Jones.

Wales have four half-backs of real quality – James Hook and Stephen Jones pushing each other at No 10 and Michael Phillips and Dwayne Peel competing at No 9.

"There are no hard feelings between us," Hook said yesterday after being selected to start against the French, "just as there were none when I [last] had the jersey. It's typically Welsh, the great fly-half debate."

It was Lyn Jones, the eccentric coach of the Ospreys – who supply 14 of the Wales 22 for Saturday's match – who took a torch to the debate a couple of years ago, when he compared young Hook to the great Barry John.

"The way he glides over the ground, holds the ball in two hands, avoids defenders and uses his runners, James reminds me of Barry," he said. "He attacks the line, defends well, has speed and also has a big kicking game."

Never mind Barry John or Cliff Morgan or Phil Bennett or Jonathan Davies... it sounds like Jonny Wilkinson, pre-2008.

Phillips, another Osprey, seems to have established himself as the No 1 scrum-half over Peel; that has not been the case with Hook and Jones. Hook's immaculate goal-kicking and his creation of a try for the full-back, Lee Byrne, in the stunning victory over England at Twickenham (the red rose brigade still haven't got over the shock) earned him the man of the match award.

And what did Gatland do? He played what seems to be a very canny hand. In the subsequent victory over Scotland, Hook scored a fine individual try – and was replaced by Jones, who then started against Italy and Ireland. All resulted in wins, of course, so why the chopping and changing?

"James offers different qualities and he's a bit more creative," Gatland said. "With Stephen we have the benefit of his vast experience from the bench and he's one of a number of players who can come on and change the game if it's necessary."

Hook hopes that that will not be the case. "I missed a couple of training sessions last week because of flu," he said, "but I'm a confident lad and you'll see that when I step on the pitch on Saturday. A Grand Slam is special isn't it?"

Wales kick-started their last Grand Slam with a victory over England at Cardiff in 2005, when they were coached by Mike Ruddock, who is now in charge at Worcester, and sealed it with a win over Ireland, also at the Millennium Stadium.

"I watched it on television in a bar in the city centre," Hook said. "It's strange to think that three years on I will be involved in a game that could give us another championship. It's really hard to explain what the team is feeling because we all knew we achieved something big against Ireland in Dublin but something bigger is now on the cards. Cardiff is going to be like a cattle market this weekend."

Wales are well placed, with four wins from four and a considerable points difference. That leads to the confident prediction that France will play anything but a kicking game. This is why Gatland has preferred Hook to Jones. "Stephen has been playing really well and to be honest I didn't know who was going to be picked," Hook said. "I think it will be an open game because France are going to have to take risks."

It is horses for courses and the coach knows something about the equestrian world. Before he was sent packing from Ireland seven years ago, Gatland owned a racehorse called Rolling Maul. Not the best name for an animal that is supposed to show a turn of foot. Now he is in the Principality, if Gatland cares to invest in the sport of kings again, Rolling Maul would not fit the bill. By Hook or by Crook would be a tad more interesting.

Hook, who has come a long way in a very short time (a couple of seasons ago he was a star performer, and part-timer, for Neath in the Welsh Premiership), has swapped places with Jones before. Under Gareth Jenkins he made his Test debut in Argentina in 2006, coming off the bench to score a try. His home debut against Australia the next season was even more impressive. Wales were 17-6 down and Jones, the captain, went off injured. Hook came on to score 13 points in a 29-29 draw. For the first, but not the last time, he was made man of the match.

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