By Gavin Mortimer
THE CHANCES of a white Christmas in Perpignan would seem about as likely as Wales one day beating Australia. Down in the deep south of France, the winters are mild and usually sunny, which goes to explain why James Hook’s house has been receiving a steady stream of visitors in recent days. His parents have just returned to Wales after a mini-break in Catalan country, and now the Perpignan fly-half has the in-laws staying for Christmas.
Not that Hook will be able to put his feet up much over the festive season. On Saturday evening Perpignan play Montpellier in the Mediterranean local derby and then on December 30 they travel to Toulon before hosting Bordeaux six days later. Still, they will be prime opportunities for Hook to remind the Welsh selectors that the loss of Rhys Priestland with a long-term Achilles injury need not be the disaster many people are predicting.
Jonathan Davies certainly believes he should be given the No 10 jersey for the Six Nations, telling the BBC last week that “Hook deserves a chance now to play stand-off”. The former dual-code international went on to say that he couldn’t understand why the selectors had overlooked Hook for Wales’ quartet of autumn Tests. “Unless you are involved in that squad, it is difficult to say what their thinking is.”
Hook did feature – sort of – in two of Wales’ four defeats last month, replacing the injured Jamie Roberts at centre midway during the first-half against Argentina, and coming on for Priestland 12 minutes from the end of the battering from the All Blacks. Though he was unavailable for the final Test against Australia because of club commitments, Hook was mysteriously omitted from the side that slumped to defeat against Samoa. “It is difficult,” he admits, when asked about his bit-part existence in the Welsh squad. “But I’m used to it, it’s been the story of my career. It can get frustrating at times but I don’t know any different.”
It’s startling to discover that in his 67-cap career, Hook has never played more than seven consecutive matches in one position, but perhaps he’s finally going to get a run at fly-half in this season’s Six Nations what with Priestland’s injury and Wales looking for inspiration after the misery of last month. “I haven’t heard anything from the selectors,” explains Hook. “But they don’t announce the Six Nations’ squad until mid-January so I’ll just keep playing for Perpignan, doing the best I can, and see what happens.”
For Hook to be given the ten shirt in February, the selectors will have to be believe he can do a better job than either Dan Biggar or Rhys Patchell, the 19-year-old Blue who has been coming on leaps and bounds this season. Whoever gets the nod, they’ll have to be the creative catalyst able to transform the fortunes of the national side, for a year that began so wonderfully with a Grand Slam title, has ended woefully with four home defeats.
Asked which of the November losses was the most disappointing, Hook gives a pained laugh and says they were all disappointing. “But I think losing to Argentina was the worst because after that everything just snowballed. The pressure was on and it showed against Samoa.”
Hook admits it was a “big disappointment” not to be involved in that game against the Pacific Islanders, and even though he got on against the All Blacks, there wasn’t much of a mark he could make in 12 minutes and with Wales already well beaten.
So now comes the Six Nations and somehow Wales have got to brush themselves down ready for the challenge of Ireland on the opening weekend. “We’ve got to look forward to the Six Nations and start afresh,” says Hook. “Let’s be honest, we can’t actually do any worse than we did last month so let’s regroup at the end of January and go into the Six Nations with confidence. I think the self-belief is still there. We know where we’ve got to get to; we know we’ve got the talent to get there, so let’s show it in the Six Nations.”