Timing will be all as Welsh become hooked on Hook

Nurture is key in rugby World Cup year for the latest heir to the mystical red No 10 shirt
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Having helped release the genie from the bottle they are doing their best to minimise the spell. James Hook is young and gifted, but needs time and space to develop and the expectations of a nation can wait a month or two. Hook, his minders might be tempted to say, is light years removed from Peter Pan.

Welsh rugby's latest fly-half sensation himself is as level-headed and sensible off the field as he is on it and it wasn't his fault that he was compared with indecent haste to Barry John. Lyn Jones, his coach at the Ospreys, was obviously getting a bit carried away when he said: "The way he glides over the ground, holds the ball in two hands, avoids defenders and uses his runners, James reminds me of Barry John." There was more. "He attacks the line, defends well, has speed and also a big kicking game."

And all that even before Hook had played a meaningful game for the Ospreys, let alone Wales. He signed as a full-time professional only earlier this year. Before that he was the star stand-off in the Welsh Principality Premiership, where mainly young part-timers earn not much more than the minimum wage. Hook steered Neath to back-to-back victories in a championship which sustains the game, albeit at a more modest level, in the clubs that were once the life and soul of the party.

Before his 21st birthday at the end of June, Hook was moving up. Apart from his duties with Neath he was performing with the Wales Under-21s and the national sevens squad and then Gareth Jenkins, the new Wales coach, took him on the difficult summer tour to Argentina. He won his first cap against the Pumas, coming off the bench to score a try. He was less successful in the Second Test, gifting Argentina a try by taking too long over a kick. Even so, Jenkins said he wanted to use the tour to develop a handful of young players for the World Cup in France this coming autumn and Hook was one of them.

It was what happened last autumn that set Hook apart. Wales were in trouble against Australia and were 17-6 down inside the first quarter. Stephen Jones, the captain, went off with an injury after 23 minutes and was replaced by Hook, who put in a nerveless performance and kicked two conversions and three penalties, the last of which earned a 29-29 draw. Never mind a star is born, the boy is a headline writer's dream: Wales off the Hook etc. Here was the greatest thing since sliced laver bread.

"What he showed against Australia was the composure, self-belief and confidence you need on the international stage," Jenkins observed. "He's a very talented player." Playing No 10 for Wales - think Cliff Morgan, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies - has almost mystical status but this is where the picture gets blurred, for neither the Ospreys nor Wales seem entirely sure of Hook's best position.

He played at inside centre against the Pacific Islanders, at No 10 against Canada and did not startagainst New Zealand, although he did come on as a replacement centre in a 45-10 defeat and acquitted himself so well that Steve Hansen, one of the All Blacks coaches, remarked: "If Hook was playing in New Zealand he would be competing with Daniel Carter."

As it is, he had been competing with Gavin Henson, Shaun Connor and Andrew Bishop for a starting place with the Ospreys and Gareth Jenkins added to the national debate by suggesting to the region that Hook should have more game time and at No 10. The problem is that Henson tends to play stand-off for the Ospreys with Hook outside him; for Wales Henson prefers inside centre but there can't be a straight role reversal for the Six Nations or beyond for the very good reason that Stephen Jones, a fly-half, is Wales's World Cup captain.

On Boxing Day, when the Ospreys put 50 points on the Llanelli Scarlets, Hook scored 23 points while Jones withdrew from the Scarlets' team after hurting his back in the warm-up. Hook's presence has cast a shadow over both Jones and Henson, of whom Jenkins said: "Gavin will have to add something to his game. Hook's physical contribution in the contact area is as effective as I've seen for a long time. What moves players on? Selection and pressure from your team-mates."

Henson, named world young player of the year in 2001, would be delighted to play alongside Hook for the Ospreys and Wales - "it could be the start of a really good partnership" - but would not be best pleased at being replaced by him. "James is a natural rugby player and that helps in this arena," Henson said. "You can forget about the occasion and go on instinct."

Playing at No 12 at international level is supposed to be easier than at No 10 but the natural looked comfortable wherever he performed. "I feel I've developed through the autumn matches with Wales," Hook said. "Being around so many internationals and Lions has made me more confident. As long as I keep my feet on the ground I don't mind whether I play stand-off or centre."

Dai Rees, Wales's sevens coach who has been monitoring Hook's career, said: "James has had his breaks and has made the most of them. I think he's that good that he's one in a generation and will be a core member of Wales's squad for years to come."

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