Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Hook aims to return for Wales

James Hook hopes for Wales return

James Hook will reach an unwanted anniversary next Monday - two years since he started a Test match for Wales.

Given 70 time-capped Hook's pedigree as a player of sublime talent, rich points-scoring ability and game-breaking quality, it is almost an unfathomable scenario.

Only two players - Neil Jenkins and Stephen Jones - are above him on the all-time Wales points chart, and at 28, Hook still has so much to offer.

Anyone who witnessed his full-back masterclass for Perpignan in last weekend's Heineken Cup clash against Gloucester will testify that he is arguably a player at the peak of his powers.

Gloucester rugby director Nigel Davies, who played 29 times for Wales and has coached his country, has no doubt that Hook warrants the highest praise.

"James is a fantastic player, real quality," he said.

"He is a danger every time he is on the ball. He makes good decisions and you can't take your eyes off for him.

"There is a particular philosophy the Wales team go with, which is based around power and not making too many errors. Hooky probably does not quite fit that profile, but for me he is a real class act.

"I would want him in my team every time."

Hook is likely to be involved when Wales boss Warren Gatland announces his squad next week for autumn Tests against South Africa, Argentina, Tonga and Australia.

But it would be no surprise if he filled another bit-part role, something akin to the 22 minutes-worth of rugby he played as a substitute during last season's title-winning RBS 6 Nations Championship.

Hook, if the 2012 capped game against the Barbarians is removed - as it should be - from Test rugby's records, has not started a Test match since the 2011 World Cup bronze medal match defeat by Australia in Auckland.

It has been a recurring theme throughout an international career that began in 2006. Of his 70 caps, only 48 have come as a starter, with 22 off the bench, and he has filled four different positions - fly-half, centre, full-back and wing.

Even with Jamie Roberts currently injured and likely to miss the entire November programme, it is probable that Gatland will partner Jonathan Davies with Scott Williams in midfield.

Elsewhere, Leigh Halfpenny is an automatic choice at full-back, while fly-half duty appears to be a straight fight between incumbent Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, with Priestland favourite after recovering from an Achilles tendon injury that sidelined him from Six Nations duty last term.

Not for the first time, Hook could therefore find himself on the outside looking in, although he retains a stoical approach to it all.

"I will keep on playing to put myself in the shop window," he said after scoring all 22 of Perpignan's points at Kingsholm through a try, conversion, drop-goal and four penalties.

"If they notice you, it is going to be in this competition (Heineken Cup), so it is important for me to keep playing well for Perpignan and not think too much about Wales because that should take care of itself.

"It is out of my hands in certain respects, so all I can do is play for Perpignan and play as best I can. There is nothing more I can do.

"If they want me, I am available. But if not, you have to just get on with it. That's sport and that's rugby."

His many admirers will hope that he keeps the faith, continues producing the goods for Perpignan and remains true to the natural attacking instincts that have made him a player of box-office material.

Other than that, the ball is not in Hook's court.

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