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Page last updated at 18:04 GMT, Sunday, 13 March 2011

James Hook flourishes as Wales fly-half

Wales fly-half James Hook takes on opposite number Ronan O'Gara and Donncha O'Callaghan
Wales fly-half James Hook takes on Ronan O'Gara and Donncha O'Callaghan

By Bruce Pope
BBC Sport Wales

James Hook may not yet be the perfect 10 but in Cardiff on Saturday he produced arguably his best performance for Wales at fly-half.

In a fierce, scrappy 19-13 win over Ireland, Hook proved he now has the maturity and composure to control a top-level international from start to finish.

With British and Irish Lion Stephen Jones also vying for the number 10 shirt, Wales coach Warren Gatland has the luxury of two top-class fly-halves in his squad.

But despite Ireland's late onslaught at the Millennium Stadium, Gatland resisted the urge to send on veteran Jones from the bench to see Wales home, leaving the 33-year-old stuck on 98 Wales caps.

That was a huge vote of confidence in Hook and demonstrated how well the 25-year-old had performed in opposition to first Ronan O'Gara - who during the match became the fifth man to reach 1000 Test points - and his 50th-minute replacement Jonathan Sexton.

Highlights - Wales 19-13 Ireland

Hook was named man of the match for his all-round performance, which included three penalties and a conversion.

"To be honest I was thrilled to bits, I really enjoyed it," Hook said.

"The first half-an-hour we were disappointed to give that try away early on, give the Irish a bit of confidence and it was a bit of a dodgy middle period, a couple of loose kicks.

"But I thought second half, the rain came down, the boys tightened it up a bit, the pack, the line-out was exceptional in fairness to the boys.

"Ireland came at us at the end and it could have gone either way... it was very twitchy. The result was massive for us."

Ireland are in a similar position to Wales with one top-class veteran stand-off, in this case O'Gara, and the young pretender snapping at his heels.

If anything the fly-half debate in Ireland has been even fiercer than in Wales, not known to be coy when discussing successors to the likes of Phil Bennett, Barry John, Cliff Morgan et al.

Hook happy with Welsh win

"You try not to take notice [of the debate] but it's a bit difficult, especially in Wales," Hook added.

"Me and Stephen, I respect him 100% and I think he respects me as well.

"He's achieved so much in the game and I'm sure he'll go on to achieve 100 caps and it just shows the measure of the bloke."

Hook's chances at fly-half have been hampered by his adaptability, with Wales using him at full-back and centre when injuries have bitten.

At regional level the Ospreys have put their faith in Dan Biggar at fly-half and Hook will depart the Liberty Stadium in the summer to join Perpignan in his quest for more time at 10.

While the Ospreys and Wales would rather Hook had stayed, the move abroad could well boost his development further - as it did for Jones when he moved to Clermont Auvergne for two seasons.

On Saturday, Ireland coach Declan Kidney opted for the tried and tested O'Gara to start in Cardiff but then turned to replacement Sexton early in the second half.

One of the Leinster man's first contributions was an overcooked kick that sailed directly into touch, leading to Wales' controversial try that ultimately proved the difference between the two sides.

The ball was handled by spectators, which should have denied Wales the right to take a quick throw-in, but Wales captain Matthew Rees was handed a different ball by a ball-boy and passed in to Mike Phillips peeling round the blind side.

Ball mix-up gifts Wales controversial try

The scrum-half raced 40m along the left touchline, handing off Ireland winger Tommy Bowe to score in the corner.

Scottish touch judge Peter Allan cleared the move when asked by South African referee Jonathan Kaplan and the try was awarded.

Ireland were left fuming and Hook's successful conversion hardly helped the mood of the visitors.

The men in green shirts can feel hard done-by that they did not get the rub of the green, but it is Wales who march on to next Saturday's Six Nations finale with championship hopes still alive.

A convincing win in Paris against a France side hurting from their first defeat to Italy could be enough to sneak the title, although it will also required Grand Slam-chasing England to suffer a major reversal against Ireland in Dublin.

With no fresh injuries reported in Wales' backline to muddy the selection waters, Hook is almost certain to be at 10 when the team is announced on Wednesday.

If he can produce the goods once again in the cauldron of the Stade de France, then Hook will surely have convinced Gatland that he is also the man who will guide Wales from fly-half when the World Cup gets under way next September.

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see also
Prop Jones returns to Wales squad
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Six big-name changes for France
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Gatland toasts 'lucky' Wales try
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O'Driscoll anger over crucial try
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Wales 19-13 Ireland
12 Mar 11 |  Rugby Union
Wales v Ireland stats
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Italy 22-21 France
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Gatland the great?
11 Mar 11 |  Welsh
Hook urged to take his chance
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Hook enjoys playmaking role
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Wales' rugby fixtures
26 Jun 07 |  Welsh
Wales rugby results archive
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BBC Sport Wales coverage
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