Welsh fly-half James Hook believes that the emphasis placed on defence by French clubs has placed more responsibility on kickers.
The 27-year has just started his second season with Perpignan in the Top 14 and already it seems that the quality of kickers will be the key as French flair is replaced by dreary defensive plans.
The concluding stages of last season’s Top 14 failed to produce a single try in the semi-finals and final as Toulouse, 24-15 winners over Castres in the semi-finals, edged out Toulon 18-12 in the final at Stade de France.
The Amlin Challenge Cup was an all-French affair but developed into a boring kicking game from the tee at The Stoop before Biarritz beat high-spending Toulon by 21-18 with no tries in the game.
Hook’s Perpignan, champions of France three years ago for the first time since 1955, flirted with relegation for most of last season but he has noticed how the there has been an increase in the kicking game.
“I think it shows how good the defences are getting and the video work that clubs are doing, working each other out. It’s far more difficult to score tries now and the next opportunity is to kick,” said Hook.
That was particularly apparent in the opening game of the season when Perpignan hosted Toulon but Jonny Wilkinson came out on top in another try-less encounter when he kicked six penalties and a drop- goal to Hook’s five penalties.
“That was a difficult start for us. We really wanted to start with a win, especially at home, but it was difficult, it was all penalties. It was quite a scrappy game and I suppose Wilkinson told in the end with his kicking.”
It looks like it could be another tough season for Perpignan but Hook believes that the signing of Welsh colleague Luke Charteris, from the Dragons, the Gloucester pair Luke Narraway and Alasdair Strokosch, plus Lifeimi Mafi from Munster, will pay off.
“We were close to relegation and we have learnt a lot form that. Hopefully we can close out these tight games.
“There are lots of players who have come in from the UK and elsewhere and that is good for the league. There are quality players coming over and it can only make it better,” said the former Ospreys star.
Hook was instrumental in many of these players making the switch and he has settled in very well in Languedoc. He lives in Canet, about ten miles outside Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast, and is really enjoying the lifestyle.
“I love it here. I’m picking the language up a little bit more and have settled into the lifestyle really well, myself and my family love it here.
“The new players have settled in quite well on their own. I have tried helping as much as I can, but in fairness they have settled in quite quickly and got into the culture pretty well,” said Hook.
The Port Talbot native has a three-year contract so he does not need to worry about his future this season and he does not believe that the large numbers who have moved from Wales will impact on the international side.
“I’ve been here a season now and I’ve managed to juggle them both, going back for the autumn internationals and the Six Nations and it’s worked out pretty well.”
He has concentrated on club rugby since the summer tour and there has been little contact with Warren Gatland, but that will change in the coming weeks now that the Welsh coach has recovered from his injuries.
“After the Six Nations and the summer tour we’ve been focused on Perpignan and our clubs. So the next thing is the autumn international series, so we’ll wait and see,” said Hook.
He believes that the creation of the Rugby Championship will make the Southern Hemisphere sides stronger, and they will get a chance to evaluate that when they take on Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, along with Samoa, in the autumn this year.
“I think, particularly, Argentina coming in will benefit. We know how strong South Africa and the rest are, but playing week-in week-out against the stronger teams will obviously benefit them. Coming to the World Cup they’ll definitely benefit and improve as a team,” he said.
But between now and then Hook’s primary focus will be getting Perpignan up the Top 14 table. “We’ve got quality coaches here and, hopefully, we can learn from our mistakes.
“I’m purely focused on my rugby and just hoping for a good season,” added Hook, who has scored 346 points in his 65 internationals since making his Wales debut in 2006.
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