Hook’s match-turning talents cramped by Gatland’s lack of faith
Wales coach plays his most gifted runner and handler at No 15 – and it backfires as side lack killer touch
Saturday 05 February 2011
They were reporting a 28-mile tailback between the Bath turn-off of the M4 and Newport at the height of the Friday afternoon rush to get from England to Wales for this match, which, considering the distance between the two points is about 34 miles, was more of a car park than a queue.
The Welsh love to believe the toll they charge on the Severn Bridge is a down payment by the English on a lesson in rugby; the announcement within the past week or so that three poster boys of the back line – James Hook, Lee Byrne and Gavin Henson – would prefer to play their club rugby in France rather than at home was a clip round the ear to a sporting psyche only ever one bad news day away from painful introspection. Last night was crying out for a collective effort to restore the faith.
Somehow everyone made it inside in time and those wearing red who feared a beasting at the scrum had some early succour. Dylan Hartley, the England hooker who was baited by Wales' coach Warren Gatland in the build-up, popped up as the front rows engaged. But England calmed themselves with a 10-point start – and so a pattern was set. Alun Wyn Jones gave Ben Foden a verbal rocket (the England full-back just grinned), Andy Powell conceded a couple of penalties and it became a fight between England's big back row and Wales' desire to launch their outside backs.
In that predictable event, how to judge the wisdom of playing Hook at full-back? His country's most gifted handler and runner accompanied the signing of a three-year deal to join Perpignan with a reaffirmation that fly-half is his favourite position. That was where the 25-year-old, who is said to be on £50,000 a month to swap his native Neath for the Mediterranean, made his name: after a substitute appearance for yesterday's dependable first choice Stephen Jones against Australia in 2006, the local newspaper typesetters smilingly dusted off the ever-popular "New Barry John" headlines. But Hook's last start for Wales at 10 was in March 2009; in 11 Tests since then he has had nine at centre and here his second at the back. Maybe it is not just the English who should routinely parry the accusation that they do not trust their most lavish talent.
While Byrne, a career and Lions full-back who is joining Clermont-Auvergne, watched from the bench (Henson's two-year wanderings have taken him now to Toulon), Hook got tied up in one runaround trying to evade Flood, then showed his class by catching a high ball, making a nimble sidestep. He knew any fumbles would invite England's scrummaging into the Welsh 22, like setting a fire and inviting the big bad wolf in to warm his claws at the hearth. Hook did not fumble but he could not set Wales alight.
Yet Gatland had been saying for weeks that the idea of Hook leading the attack was a viable choice – one he had given great consideration to – and with the burgeoning Jonathan Davies alongside Jamie Roberts in the centres Wales had the muscle to provide the comfort blanket.
It was not until the 67th minute that Gatland followed through. Byrne was sent on for Stephen Jones, and Hook moved forward. England were 23-16 ahead: too late to make a difference? Hook lay on his back to have cramp eased out of his muscles before he lined up a 25-metre penalty to trim England's lead by three. Over it went. Ten minutes left. Byrne sliced a kick then coughed up a penalty. England seven ahead again. The collective will was with the visitors; Wales, on a miserable run of results, were left ruing their lack of faith in a fine individual.
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