No room for ego as matchwinner Hook gets hooked

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The Independent Online

So it is the 57th minute, you have scored 12 of your side's 17 points, have waltzed inside two tacklers for a try just when your country needed it, have not missed a kick, have barely put a toe out of place never mind anything as substantial as a foot – and what happens?

The whistle goes, you look to the bench and with the game entering its final quarter and you being that game's most influential player, you are stunned to see your number raised. You, the chosen one, the holder of that cherished Welsh No 10, the latest prototype off Max Boyce's fabled production line for goodness sake are to be replaced by a 30-year-old whose best days are blurry in the wing-mirror. Welcome to Warren Gatland's Wales. Please leave your ego at the door.

Not that James Hook has to carry on those dippingly deceptive shoulders an overload of confidence; indeed quite the opposite. The 22-year-old may very well be the poster boy of Welsh rugby but there will always be team-mates who take the mantle of the poser boys. Shane Williams's irresistible line dances of fleet-footed mayhem point to a psyche which regards nothing as impossible, while Gavin Henson's self-belief needs no introduction. Nevertheless, Hook was clearly shocked when hauled off and had every right to be.

Why did Gatland do it, in fact why did he remove the other half-back, Mike Phillips, at the same time and then his captain, Ryan Jones, just four minutes later when just two points ahead? "I thought we needed some cool heads to bring us home," said the impervious coach. "Stephen Jones did that magnificently, I thought."

The Kiwi then went on to warn that he would be making changes for the Italy game and more than hinted that outside-half would be one of the positions under scrutiny. Poor old Hook. Man of the match one weekend, match-winner the next. And he still gets dropped.

Gatland is unapologetic about that and if his first fortnight in charge is anything to go by, he will be resolutely remaining so. Rarely has a coach had such an impact so early into his tenure, particularly in a nation like Wales where things change with all the haste of a stalagmite. If it is evident that Gatland and his oh-so-able lieutenant, Shaun Edwards, have plugged the holes in a previously porous defence, then behind the scenes the difference in attitude is just as obvious. The mythical curse of "player power" has been eradicated to such an extent that the Welsh team camp now resembles the set of Bad Lads Army.

Gatland's demotion of Hook is merely the latest example of the iron glove around a fist bedecked in a knuckle duster. See the dropping of three players from the side which broke the 20-year barren run at Twickenham last Saturday, see the switching of the home dressing room to the smaller one across the corridor where it is not so easy for players to hide out of sight for the half-time team-talk. There is something of the Tony Soprano about this man, something warm, but also something sinister. He is the perfect choice for Wales because if ever a team needed to be built in the image of a strongman, it was that unruly rabble of the World Cup.

Even that bunch of hopeless romantics known as the Welsh rugby public are buying into this new era of super-cool professionalism. If Gatland is the bad cop then Edwards is the even badder cop in this twist of an old routine and has already told the boys in red that he takes missed tackles "personally". So, too, it seems do the Millennium crowd. Sure, they cheered little Shane to the rafters, but they reserved the most joyous roars for the final minutes as Wales refused to concede the try to Scotland.

"What heartened me most," declared an almost teary-eyed Edwards, "was the way which the fans rose to their feet to applaud the defence at the end. They did so as loudly as they cheered the attacks. Defence can be exciting and although everyone remembers the great tries of the 70s, it was great defence that laid the foundations. That is what we are working towards." For the record, Hook did not miss a tackle. Good job. He may never have played again.

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