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Jackson column: Mystery of James Hook and the Wales No.10 shirt

James Hook

James Hook did something a long time ago which no British or Irish player has done in the Six Nations since. He went through the card, ticking all four boxes in the scoring book: try, conversion, penalty, drop.

He did it, what’s more, not in a landslide win over Italy but against England in Cardiff at the end of a tournament when a home defeat by Ireland followed by three more in Edinburgh, Paris and Rome left Wales marooned at the bottom.

On St Patrick’s Day 2007, Hook averted the crisis of a whitewash by ensuring that the winning margin, 27-18, proved just enough to leave Scotland bottom on points-difference.

During the next six months, Wales rewarded him with three starts in a row, then shifted him back to inside centre before the riotous run-in with Fiji in Nantes brought about Gareth Jenkins’ brutal sacking the next morning, the penalty for having found himself on marginally the wrong side of a 72-point classic.

Hook’s confirmation that he will retire at the end of the season prompts the renewal of a question which his admirers have asked ad infinitum without getting close to a satisfactory explanation:

Why were Wales so reluctant to pick him at ten?

The facts lend credence to the question. Of all Hook’s 81 Tests, he started a mere 21 at fly-half. In other words, barely one quarter of his total appearances in his favourite position.

Worse still, he was in and out at ten for Wales on at least 13 occasions. Apart from that three-match run into the 2007 World Cup, he was never allowed more than two outings on the bounce. Even making full allowance for the squad system, that takes some understanding.

Hook, a team player first and last, made no fuss at the time and he’s not about to do so now, beyond conceding that his versatility came at a price in lost opportunities as the playmaker-in-chief. Instead he points to his ever-changing role throughout the 2011 Six Nations.

“That championship was the story of my career,’’ he says. “I started at full- back against England. I played ten against Scotland at Murrayfield where we had a pretty big win (24-6). The coaches told me I’d gone really well and I thought I’d get a run of games.

“For the next game, against Italy in Rome, I was picked at outside centre. I remember Rob Howley (Wales attack coach) saying to me: ‘I feel really bad doing this but with Jonathan Davies injured there’s no-one else to play at 13.’

“People have said to me since that I could have been firm and told him: ‘No, I’m not playing there.’ That was never an option. You play to the best of your ability wherever you are picked, especially for your country.

“I felt that I was in a good vein of form at the time. I needed a run of games but I didn’t get them. Outside half was always my best position. All the coaches knew I preferred to play there. I told them plenty of times. To make the most of it, you needed to be playing there and training there week in, week out.’’

James Hook
Man of many talents: Warren Gatland watches on with James Hook in action during a Wales training session. Stu Forster/Getty Images

The Gatland regime, a no-frills, risk-averse strategy based on a block- busting defence and superior fitness known as ‘Warrenball’, was hardly designed for someone like Hook, a player never afraid to play what was in front of him and chance his arm. That, in turn, led to a management perception that he tended to go ‘off-script’.

“I’ve always been the type of player that if I felt something was ‘on’, from our own 40 metre line or wherever, I’d go for it. If it worked out, everyone was happy. If it didn’t, they’d say: ‘Why didn’t you take the other option.’

“Especially when you had someone like (Warren) Gatland in charge with a rigid game-plan.’’

When Gatland picked his first Wales team, at Twickenham in February 2008, Hook started in his preferred position with Stephen Jones on the bench. As due reward for his six goals in the win over England, Hook stayed put for the next match, Scotland at home.

Despite another win, he found himself back on the bench against Italy, replaced by Jones. “I felt I played well against England,’’ Hook says. “It was one of those games where everything went right, from charging down Toby Flood’s kick for the early try.

“I did ok against Scotland. Before the Italy game, Warren called Stephen and me into his office. He said there was nothing to choose between us but he felt Stephen was the right choice against Italy.’’

Hook remained on the bench against Ireland at Croke Park and regained his starting place for the Grand Slam clincher against France. Apart from a fleeting resurgence during the 2011 World Cup where he replaced an injured Rhys Priestland in the semi-final against France, Hook, not unlike Jeremy Corbyn, barely had a look-in at No. 10.

His international career ran for four more years when most of his starts were made in either centre position (19) and full-back (10). During those four years, Wales played 46 Tests and chose Hook as their starting ten for just two, the last a pre-World Cup warm-up against Ireland in 2015.

Now, after more than 360 games for Neath, Ospreys, Perpignan, Gloucester, Wales and the Lions, he is preparing for something completely different. At 34, Hook, the father of three sons, Harrison (10), Ollie (4), George (2), is due to publish the first in a series of childrens’ books this summer.

“The books are as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy called Jimmy,’’ he says. “I’ve drawn on all my experiences as a kid…’’

PETER JACKSON

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