The Llanelli Scarlets' performance in their comprehensive victory over Ulster at their Ravenhill stronghold was every bit as good as their win in Toulouse last month and it confirms them as strong Heineken Cup contenders.
The luck of the toss was crucial in these appalling conditions and the foundations of the Scarlets' success were laid in the first half, when their tactics against the wind were near perfect. They kept the ball in hand, were superior in the contact and ruck areas and their back-row of Simon Easterby, Gavin Thomas and Alix Popham were superb.
The absence of the outside-half David Humphreys would not have helped Ulster but the way the Scarlets kept the ball away from his replacement, Paddy Wallace, suggested it would not have affected the result.
The most interesting statistic in the first 20 minutes was that Ulster made 27 tackles to six. That tells you the extent of the pressure applied by the visitors against the gale to restrict Ulster to a four-point lead at the interval. Ulster employed the same tactics at the start of the second half but once Regan King surged through to score his excellent try after 50-odd minutes the Scarlets piled on the points. Their full-back, Morgan Stoddart, making his debut at 22-years-old, played very well in the conditions and deserved his try. He shirked nothing, looked for work, carried confidently and off-loaded well.
It was good to see Stephen Jones in such good form at No 10. He works so well in the midfield foursome made up of himself, Dwayne Peel, Gavin Evans and Regan King. What is so impressive is the way Jones bosses a game and gives the lead to all those around him.
Young James Hook, a candidate for Jones's No 10 role in the Welsh team, should take note. We will be looking for signs that he can do the same when the Ospreys play Stade Français at the Liberty Stadium today. This threatens to be a tight, forward-dominated affair with the quality of the kicking likely to be a telling factor.
Stade have the advantage in that it is a game they can afford to lose. The Ospreys cannot. In fact, Stade would come away content if they got a losing bonus point. The French team will still want to win, but they will be cushioned by the fact that they do not have to take chances and it will be up to Ospreys to take the initiative.
That places a big responsibility on the shoulders of young Hook, who will be playing No 10 rather than centre, and Gavin Henson, who will be occupying the No 12 spot outside him.
Hook's career in the big time, brief as it has been, has been packed with promise. His ability and composure, especially in his kicking, has been remarkably mature. But he still has to prove that he can control a game. All the ability in the world is wasted on an outside-half if he cannot a read a game and dictate its course. This is the ideal opportunity for Hook to demonstrate that he can grab a match by the scruff of the neck.
In this he needs the support of Henson, who has not been displaying the full extent of his talent this season. He has tended to drift in and out of games and has not fulfilled his duties in the way he did at first. His much-publicised skiing holiday antics last week have not endeared him to his countrymen but there is always a road to forgiveness available - on the pitch.
If Hook and Henson fail to control the game the Ospreys are as good as out of the tournament. It as simple as that. It won't be easy. The Ospreys pack is full of experienced, ball-carrying forwards who are bang on form. At scrum-half they have the excellent Justin Marshall. But none of them can dictate the course of the game. They need the No 10 to do that.
Hook is the undoubted rookie but he has to be the gaffer. So far this season, whenever the Ospreys have needed someone to control the game to preserve a lead in the final stages, they have sent on Shaun Connor. Connor is not as gifted but he is a very competent performer and knows how to dictate the flow of play. That is what we will be looking for today from Hook. It is a tall order but it has to be delivered.Reuse content