Wales rewarded by Hook gamble
February 15, 2011
James Hook turned in a strong showing at Murrayfield © Getty Images
Now, that feels better. Which is not to say that Wales' victory at Murrayfield on Saturday will feature largely on 'best of' film compilations in the future, or that the pressure won't return should they come unstuck in Rome, but it was a time when a win was badly needed.
Reports that Under Pressure was a regular choice of music on the team bus suggest that morale, and relations between the players and coach, Warren Gatland, remain pretty strong. You don't wind up a coach whose contract has recently been renewed for another four years unless you are pretty confident that he will take it the right way.
The win at Murrayfield halts that gloom-inducing piling-up of matches without a win. It certainly eases the pressure, renewal or not, on Gatland. It was also a reminder of the benefits that come from taking a few calculated risks.
It may be that in finally breaking with his more conservative preference for Stephen Jones at fly-half, Gatland to a degree had his hand forced by the after-effects Jones felt from his injury in the opening minutes against England. Against that, we know that he had already considered playing James Hook at 10 and it also seems possible that another injury, to Dwayne Peel, may have prevented serious consideration of a still more radical step, recalling him in place of Mike Phillips.
What was clear, particularly in the early minutes that set the tone for the match by giving Wales a 16-point first quarter start, was the benefit that came from Hook's inclusion at 10. Much tends to be made of the alleged Welsh fetishisation of this particular shirt. Certainly, when it becomes a surrogate for other fault-lines such as east v west or class, it can be irksome and pointless.
It is also a device, as it was when proponents of Billy Cleaver argued with fans of Glyn Davies or when the Arwellians and the Jenkinsites battled through the late 1990s, for serious debate about the way you play the game. Underlying much debate over the last decade or so has been the implication that the Welsh emphasis on the brilliant outside-half is outdated - that in a modern, highly physical game played by well-drilled sides there would be no place for Barry, Cliff or Jonathan.
Instead the position was one for solid, square-shouldered, percentage players who took sensible options, tackled everything and were reliable goal-kickers. Certainly, Wales cannot complain of the service given by Neil Jenkins and Jones over the last decade, any more than England might decry the contribution of Jonny Wilkinson.
You certainly need your outside-half to be able to tackle - a message that was coming over loud and clear from the Italian journalists around me at Twickenham on Saturday as they examined the defensive limitations of Luciano Orquera. When defences are generally so well organised a single weak link will be ruthlessly exposed.
But the other implication of the strength of modern defences - a distinct Welsh virtue at Murrayfield - is that it generally takes something unexpected to unlock them. Play the percentages, run through set moves and test the limits of the pack and go and you'll generally bounce off them.
Which is where the likes of Barry, Cliff and Jonathan (both also, incidentally, pretty good defenders), James Hook and Toby Flood come in. They're the players who will give you something different, as Flood has done in both England's games so far this season and that Hook did in those first few minutes at Murrayfield.
The balance has shifted back towards the creators. At the same time, let's not get evangelical about this. Doubts do remain about Hook as a 10 and it will take a few more games to dispel or reconfirm them. What matters most is that he should be somewhere in Wales's midfield, rather than exiled to fullback, producing his distinctive brand of magic.
My colleague Huw Baines is certainly right when he argues that Wales need both Hook and Jones. What now seems to be happening with outside-halves is that they are being deployed much like baseball pitchers - with a starter who begins the game and takes it as far as possible, and a closer who comes in to finish the match off.
The suspicion remains on occasion that coaches make changes a) because they can and b) by numbers, for example changing the hooker at 55 minutes and a half-back a few minutes later, because that's what they always intended to do. But whether your closer is dropping match-winning goals like Ronan O'Gara or getting himself knocked out in defending a 46-point lead like Wilkinson, he clearly has a valuable role.
What is most encouraging, though, is the slight shift in balance. Where in recent years the tendency was to start your percentage player and bring on the creator to try to change the pattern of a losing game, the choice of Flood to start with Wilkinson on the bench, Jonny Sexton ahead of O'Gara and now Hook ahead of Jones points to a more positive outlook - aiming to win the match before you try to secure it, rather than the other way round.
The debate, an eternal one in rugby, will go on. For Wales, for the moment, this way round looks better, and if all else fails will generally make for more entertaining rugby.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
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