Wales 29 Australia 29: Hook's command performance sets the hype in motion
Monday 06 November 2006
It was like rolling out a vat of hair gel in front of Gavin Henson and telling him to apply it liberally. No, the Welsh camp probably knew that last night's entreaty to the nation "not to put too much on James Hook's shoulders" would fall upon deaf ears. By then, the horse had already bolted, the legend had already been written, the star had already been born.
Gareth Jenkins was as much to blame as anyone for this. After seeing the young outside-half come on for his home debut and haul his side away from a Wallabies walloping, the Wales coach announced: "Hook was the man of the match, no doubt about it". Well, there was plenty of doubt actually, as Chris Latham had just produced one of the finest full-back displays rugby's thrilling fields might ever witness. But you could forgive Jenkins for getting carried away. He was in some rather illustrious company, after all.
For in the bowels of the Millennium Stadium, one Barry John Esq was bestowing on a potential heir the ultimate accolade. "You know, when I made my home debut - ironically, also against Australia, but 40 years ago - everything flashed by so quickly that I went home in a daze, wishing I'd done this and that," said he of the twinkly toes. "Hook will have no such regrets. He didn't put a foot wrong and I can't praise him highly enough."
What impressed John more than anything - even more than the two conversions and three penalties that effectively secured Wales a draw that, in all honesty, they did not quite deserve - was the tactical maturity Hook showed when coming on in the 24th minute on the departure of the captain, Stephen Jones, with a knee injury that will keep him out for a fortnight. Wales were 17-6 down and not so much with their back on the ropes as their neck entwined in one.
"We were getting nowhere, playing silly rugby, throwing the ball around inside our own 22 when territory was the name of the game," said John. "Then Hook came on and gave the Welsh momentum, impetus and a certain definition. His performance should be a huge wake-up call for Stephen Jones and should make him examine his own game closely." Indeed, John even went on to suggest that Hook has given Jenkins a "selection poser", which might only intensify if and when he is chosen to start against the Pacific Islanders on Saturday. All this is incredible when one peers down Hook's skinny CV.
The 21-year-old has started just three senior games in his favoured position of fly-half and only became a full-time professional with the Ospreys eight weeks ago, after making his international debut on the summer tour to Argentina. Furthermore, he is the third-choice No 10 at his region, who - it must be said, with increasing infuriation to the Welsh set-up - prefer to employ his silky skills at inside centre, and then only intermittently. In short, Hook is still a novice who but 18 months ago was playing for the steelworks team in his home town of Port Talbot. So how did he manage to look so composed on his entry to the big time and how did he proceed to match his aura with deeds?
"Obviously I was nervous," he admitted, "but I just told myself to be as calm as possible. You can't afford to get flustered out there and I appreciate that the moment it gets on top of you is when you start playing bad. I just tried to enjoy my rugby."
Everyone else enjoyed it, that is for sure. Well, all but the Australians, who had looked so superior in that opening quarter that it appeared a case of how many. At this juncture, the only thing a few of the old Wales Grand-Slammers seemed likely to be drawing was their pension. With the English-born wing Cameron Shepherd crashing over early on and with Matt Giteau showing the instinct of a veteran scrum-half in his quick tap and dive, John Connolly's dramatic shuffling of his threequarters appeared inspired, especially as the confidence spread through the pack, who have rarely enjoyed such top-level domination.
But then arrived Hook, and with him came order. In a giddying transformation Wales took on the role of aggressors. Shane Williams's score was straight from this reunited back line's 2005 back catalogue and so, too, was that of the wing's namesake, Martyn Williams. The flanker was at his most superlative (what a head-to-head he promises to provide with New Zealand's Richie McCaw at the end of the month), a truth perfectly exemplified by the savvy and speed he used to touch down Tom Shanklin's kick-through nearing the hour mark.
The scoreboard now read 26-17, although with weapons such as Latham at their disposal, Australia always have a shot, whatever their wounds. Shepherd struck immediately to close the gap, before Latham skipped down the line for a try that was good enough to win any game. But not this humdinger, not with Hook dinging them over. His late penalty from wide out summed up his afternoon; composed, classy, decisive.
"We shouldn't expect too much from Hook too soon and we shouldn't put too much on his young shoulders," pleaded the Wales skills coach, Nigel Davies. "He does seem unflappable, though, and it is fair to say that we've discovered a star and unearthed a great talent." The cool cat, as they say, is out of the bag.
Wales: K Morgan (Dragons); G Thomas (Toulouse), T Shanklin (Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets, capt), D Peel (Scarlets); G Jenkins (Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Dragons), I Evans (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys), M Williams (Blues). Replacements: J Hook (Ospreys) for S Jones 24; D Jones (Ospreys) for A Jones 67.
Australia: C Latham (Queensland); C Rathbone (ACT), L Tuqiri (NSW), S Larkham (ACT), C Shepherd (W Force);
M Rogers (NSW), M Giteau (W Force); A Baxter (NSW), T McIsaac (W Force), R Blake (Reds), N Sharpe (W Force), D Vickerman (NSW), R Elsom (NSW), W Palu (NSW), P Waugh (NSW, capt). Replacements: , B Cannon (W Force) for McIsaac 39; S Hoiles (ACT) for Palu 55; J Valentine (Queensland) for Larkham 58; M Chisholm (ACT) for Vickerman 68.
Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).
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