James Hook looks for redemption
Wales back tells James Corrigan about his forgettable World Cup and his new life in France
France wouldn't have been the first-choice destination for many Welshmen after their cruel World Cup defeat by Les Bleus. But for James Hook, the shadows of the Pyrenees were just perfect. Or as his two-year-old son would say, parfait.
Indeed, the Dragons may have something to thank their conquerors for, come Sunday in Dublin. With Rhys Priestland almost certain not to recover from a knee problem in time to face Ireland, the wise money is on Hook, now of Perpignan, being asked to fill the No 10 shirt which some still insist is his birthright. However, the number of such romantics is far fewer now, after Hook's downer Down Under.
For some in the Wales squad, the World Cup of 2011 was the highlight of their career, as they came within one point – not to mention one very controversial dismissal – of making the final. But for Hook it was the bottom of the trough.
Priestland, Wales's find of the tournament, was forced out of the France match with injury and so the onus fell on Hook. Alas, he folded, missing multiple shots at the posts with both penalties and drop goals. From being the pre-Cup hope, Hook was the post-Cup dope, a 26-year-old put in his place by the brave new generation. Losing is bad enough, but feeling like a loser is much worse.
"That was the lowest I've ever felt after a rugby match by far," said Hook at the Wales hotel yesterday. "I was really disappointed with myself. To have worked so hard to get to a level of performance only to lose it just when it really mattered... My form was good going into the tournament and the coaches believed in me but things didn't go right. It's something I'd rather forget. For a few days afterwards I couldn't think straight. But I started to accept it, if not get over it, and then it was time to move to France. That was the best thing for me. It was a clean break."
Perpignan, with a £1.5m, three-year contract, had secured Hook's services before the World Cup, and when he arrived they were determined to see their investment flourish.
"The coaches there were great, told me to erase my memory about the World Cup and kept telling me they knew I was a good player," said Hook. "They showed faith and picked me at No 10 for the first game and it went well. I'm improving from playing week-in week-out in the one position and it gives you confidence. It's like anything you do in life, the more you do something the better you get at it."
Hook has not enjoyed as long a run in his favoured jersey since his first spell as a professional, at the Ospreys six years ago. Yet because Jamie Roberts, Wales's first-choice inside-centre, is also on the treatment table, Warren Gatland may yet ask Hook to play there, outside the veteran Stephen Jones. That would doubtlessly be a blow, but Hook wouldn't show it. The quiet man from Port Talbot was c'est la vie-minded long before he took refuge in Perpignan. Perhaps that is why he has settled in so quickly, with Kim and Harrison.
"One of the main worries was my wife and little boy – it's a huge life-changer," said Hook. "But as soon as we got there it was obvious they'd give us anything we need. They set up French lessons for the boy straight away, the other wives and girlfriends came and met my wife with their kids and instantly we had friends. That took a lot of pressure off me. You know, it's easy for the rugby player to meet people – you do it through rugby – but for the family it's much more difficult. But to show how much they've settled in my wife has decided to stay on for the next few weeks rather than go home."
Hook admitted that Harrison is mastering the language better than he is, but his only negativity about Perpignan starts and ends with their position, 11th, in the Top 14. He has been in form. Spectacular Hook cross-kicks and yet more spectacular 50-yard drop goals have been the shining moments of the club's miserable season.
"It's gone well personally," he said. "The training's similar and the league is a little tougher, as there's relegation it's tighter and scrappy and sometimes ends up in a dogfight. I haven't been targeted yet, but on Saturday against Brive our centre Max [Mermoz] had to come off with bite marks on his finger. That's about the only difference."
Apart from the football-style sackings, that is. "Oh yeah, after about three weeks there I arrived on a Monday only to be told by one of the boys the coach had gone," said Hook, referring to Jacques Delmas's dismissal after four months in charge. "That's just the way they do it over there. But it was something else to get my head around."
Hook has plainly had neither the time nor the inclination to mope over his Auckland agony. This weekend he will return to international duty for the first time since then.
"Having lost to us twice, Ireland will be for up for it and they've talked themselves up," he said. "But we will be focused and prepared. We realise the World Cup is behind us. All that matters is this Six Nations now."
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