Wales bank on Halfpenny and sling Hook for Ireland battle

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland still managed to spring a surprise for such a familiar fixture with the non-inclusion of James Hook in the Welsh starting line-up for their World Cup quarter-final.

Just three weeks ago it was preposterous even to entertain the idea that the most versatile player in Test rugby would not be worth a starting role yet Hook will be left on the bench by Wales for their biggest game in 24 years.

The Lion proved his fitness after recovering from a shoulder injury that has kept him out for the past two weeks but must settle for a place among the replacements after coach Gatland opted for Leigh Halfpenny at full-back against Ireland.

Such is the buoyancy within the Wales camp, boosted by the return of Hook, Dan Lydiate and Shane Williams, that it is the players not selected that are of greater significance.

It would have been tough on Halfpenny to miss out given his form so the return of Williams has prompted a shift for the young Cardiff wing to full-back, where Hook was expected to return, with Lee Byrne dropped altogether.

There is no room either for the 102-cap top points-scorer Stephen Jones after Rhys Priestland proved he has the temperament to handle the kicking duties with a perfect six kicks last week.

Gatland said: "This was one of the longest selection meetings we've ever had, where we went through every possible permutation available. It's a great position to be in when you're struggling to find a place for players, instead of having to think who can make up the numbers. That has sometimes been the case."

It is another blow in a frustrating campaign for Hook, who saw his penalty-kick controversially ruled wide against South Africa before injury against Samoa.

Despite enjoying the luxury of selecting from a full squad for the first time since arriving in New Zealand, Gatland has kept faith with those in form to steer Wales to their first semi-final since 1987.

Gatland said: "We had some tough decisions to make with the likes of Dan, Shane and James returning from injury and the side having done so well in their recent absence. But this is the side we believe gives us the best chance of winning against an Ireland team which topped their group and beat the Wallabies on the way."

Halfpenny and prop Gethin Jenkins are the only changes to the team edged out 17-16 by South Africa on the opening weekend, though there will be far greater depth to call upon from the sidelines at Wellington this weekend.

Ireland erred on the side of caution, with Ronan O'Gara handed his 117th cap ahead of Jonathan Sexton, though coach Declan Kidney went to great length to avoid pinpointing a reason for the selection.

He said: "It wasn't Ronan's greater experience. Jonathan has been in two Heineken Cup finals, so that's cup experience. It would be wrong of me to try to bracket it into anything, other than it's one of these genuine, tight calls."

Ireland delayed the seemingly inevitable decision of ruling out hooker Rory Best, with Sean Cronin and Damien Varley waiting for the nod.