By Gavin Mortimer
TIMES, THEY are a-changin’ at Perpignan. Who would have thought just a few years ago that arguably the most parochial of French clubs would have a Welshman for a captain? But against Stade Francais last week James Hook led out the sang-et-or [blood and gold] of USAP, a team that for the first time since 1999 contained no Nicolas Mas in the front row.
Once considered the granite, growling figurehead of Perpignan, Mas moved to Montpellier in the summer, along with veteran second-row Robins Tchale-Watchou, while scrum-half David Mele headed north to Leicester and experienced full-back Gavin Hume signed for Clermont. There were a raft of other departures, too, but Perpignan welcomed a few new faces in their stead. Most notably the 24-year-old fly-half, Camille Lopez, who joined from Bordeaux in the same month that he won his first cap for France on their summer tour to New Zealand.
But it’s not just on the pitch where Perpignan have undergone something of an upheaval. Earlier in the month the club elected a new president, the wealthy businessman François Rivière, who has already invested one million euros of his own money into Perpignan, part of his promise to get the club back among the elite of French rugby.
“The new president is a big boost for the club,” says Hook, who’s moved to full-back to accommodate the arrival of Lopez. “Financially, it’s very important to have someone who can build the club back up but it’s also great for the fans to see we’re now financially stable and we can all look ahead without worrying about money.”
Apart from a week back in Wales, Hook spent the summer in Perpignan with his family and friends. Of course he would have liked to have been with the Lions in Australia but it wasn’t to be so he used the weeks of June and July to unwind the mind and unknot the muscles after nine months of attritional rugby.
The result is a man who is feeling fresher than ever. In Perpignan’s 26-23 victory over reigning Top 14 champions Castres on the opening day of the league, Hook kicked 13 points, a haul he increased the following week against Stade Francais. Alas, his 12 points weren’t enough to prevent the Parisians sneaking a 28-27 win with a last-minute dropped goal from Jules Plisson.
The result was a bitter blow for the Catalans, and for Hook in particular, who captained the team. “It was the first time I’ve captained a side since I was about ten,” he reflects. “I really enjoyed it and didn’t change any aspect of how I play. It was just a pity that we slipped off too many tackles and didn’t dominant the set-piece the way we had against Castres.”
Hook has no problem playing fifteen to Lopez’s ten, explaining that coach Marc Delpoux has a clear strategy in mind for the team. “I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen of Lopez,” says Hook. “He has a great left boot on him, and so with my right foot it gives us more kicking options. But we also both like to attack so I’m full-back at the set-pieces but more of a second 10 in open play. It’s great for me because I’m really getting my hands on the ball.”
Hook hasn’t started a Test for Wales since the 2011 World Cup (save for the game against the Barbarians in June last year), and it’s clear from his omission from the Lions party to Australia that his style doesn’t fit into Warren Gatland’s plans. Whether he can force his way back into the Welsh squad this season may depend on how he goes in the Heineken Cup.
Perpignan are drawn in the same pool as Gloucester, Munster and Edinburgh, and Hook is relishing the prospect, especially as last season the French outfit had to make do with the Amlin Challenge Cup. “I love the Heineken Cup,” says Hook. “The supporters in particular make it a special occasion and I remember playing for the Ospreys over in Gloucester. The ‘Shed’ was full about two hours before kick off and I had to go and practise my kicking in front of them. They had a lot to say! I’m looking forward to going back and I’m sure Perpignan will thrive on the atmosphere.”