This weekend sees Wales take on Argentina at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, but one man will be very conspicuous by his absence: the mercurial James Hook. The Perpignan utility back continues to be overlooked by Wales coach Warren Gatland despite his good form for his club. He is one of the greatest rugby talents Wales has produced in decades. His play has drawn comparisons with the great Barry John. Alongside Gavin Henson, he is the most gifted rugby-footballer to come out of the principality this century. So why can’t Hook get a game for Wales? After being named on the bench for both the Autumn Internationals and being overlooked for the Lions tour, does the coach Warren Gatland just not rate Hook? At 28, the Welshman is in the prime of his career, yet he already seems surplus to requirements despite having over 70 caps and being his nation’s 3rd highest points-scorer. It simply doesn’t add-up. So what can be the reason?
Hook made his début as a replacement in late 2006 after breaking into the Ospreys team as a fresh-faced 21 year-old, scoring 13 points against Australia. Wales’ coach at the time was Gareth Jenkins who liked to play free-flowing running rugby and this fitted in perfectly with Hook’s natural attacking instincts as a running fly-half. Unfortunately, at the time, as well as scoring lots of tries, Wales tended to concede plenty and were not the force they are today. After a humiliating defeat to Fiji in the 2007 World Cup (a game in which Shane Williams scored one of rugby’s greatest ever tries http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmtouHIVexw go to 2:50), Jenkins was removed as coach and replaced by the current incumbent, Warren Gatland. In the Grand-Slam winning team of 2008, Gatland tended to rotate Hook with the more experienced Stephen Jones. Following Gavin Henson’s self-imposed rugby exile in 2009, Hook was moved into the centre where his elusive running and inventive passing could unlock the midfield. He was a regular in the Wales team until Gatland settled on a more power-dominated (and totally invention-lacking) centre-partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. The emergence of Rhys Priestland at fly-half further marginalised Hook and he only just scraped into the World Cup squad of 2011, largely because of his versatility. Since then Hook has been used sparingly, not least because he doesn’t have a full release clause for internationals in his Perpignan contract which has irked the Wales coach, but also because Leigh Halfpenny has blossomed into a world-class full-back (the position in which Hook currently plays for his club), further limiting his playing chances.
Last weekend against South Africa, Wales looked ponderous in attack showing an alarming lack of invention for a side that is usually renowned for its attacking flair. Priestland in particular looked decidedly average – he kicked aimlessly and seemed to shirk the physical confrontation with the Proteas. Instead, Wales decided to run at the defence instead of attempting to unlock it or find the gaps, and against a physical side like South Africa, that strategy is doomed to failure. I can sort of see where Gatland is coming from. Priestland is a safe pair of hands and is likely to take fewer risks than Hook. However against the big three Southern Hemisphere sides, that simply doesn’t cut the mustard. Having someone like Hook at first receiver brings a whole load of possibilities into play. Hook can expose a defence in an instant with a clever kick, a drop of the shoulder, an inside pass, a burst of pace. Yes he is unpredictable, but that is the key to his effectiveness as a rugby player. Defences will be more aware of Hook’s flair and will consequently stand-off slightly. With Priestland, you know he doesn’t have great running ability so the defence will be more inclined to rush-up, putting more pressure on the attack. Wales have been crying out for that touch of class and Hook has it in spades. Without it their long drought for a Southern Hemisphere scalp will most likely continue.
The age in which international rugby sides fielded a ‘playmaker’ is slowly coming to an end. James Simpson-Daniel is a prime example. Probably the most naturally gifted player England have produced this century, his international career was very stop-start due to injuries and also the England management not knowing what his best position was. A silky runner with a devastating burst of speed, Simpson-Daniel earned 10 caps but was never allowed an extended run in the team. He was viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity and was often used as an impact substitute, as Hook is, against tiring defences. Henson was sort of a ‘playmaker’ as was Mike Catt for England at inside centre and Gregor Townsend for Scotland. There is a pre-conception that they are defensive liabilities and modern day rugby being what it is (i.e very physical), opponents will ruthlessly target any defensive weaknesses. However this is a fallacy. Catt and Henson were definitely not liabilities and neither is Hook. Australia’s Quade Cooper and Italy’s magical Luciano Orquera are the modern equivalents of a ‘playmaker’ – not the strongest in defence but worth the risk because they can win a match single-handedly. This is the case with Hook. He can win Wales a match on his own and against New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, Hook’s creativity is vital if Wales want to break their duck.
With Jamie Roberts and now Jonathan Davies out injured, the most logical centre partner for Scott Williams this weekend against Argentina would be Hook. Gatland has other ideas, selecting Corey Allen from the Cardiff Blues, who has played 10 games of professional rugby in his life. Now I’m all for giving youth a chance, but you also need your best players on the pitch to win rugby matches. Argentina are no mugs and Allen is certainly being thrown in at the deep end. He is either going to sink or swim. Regardless of whether Gatland should have picked Allen, I personally think James Hook should start at 10 instead of Dan Biggar (and Rhys Priestland). Despite Biggar winning the 6 Nations earlier this year, the Ospreys man was rarely a stand-out performer. He had the benefit of willing midfield runners and an excellent pack in front of him. Now if someone like Hook that as an attacking platform, he could rip defences to shreds, especially a less mobile team like Argentina. I don’t know why Warren Gatland doesn’t pick him but he is missing an enormous trick. I’m sure the Pumas will be breathing a huge sigh of relief when they see him warming the bench on Saturday.
If, like me, you yearn to see James Hook in a Wales shirt sooner rather than later, let this video (which I definitely haven’t watched about 20 times) whet your appetite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw6CuMwiKn4