Sports

The mercurial James Hook and the great misconception about his illustrious career – Ben James

When you grow up watching sport, it’s often the retirements of those who first captured your youthful attention that mean that little bit more.

It’s only natural.

Seeing the figures that first starred in your earliest memories of that particular sport hang up their boots often feels like a changing of the guard, as though the sport you first knew is now, somehow, a little different.

For me personally, one of those figures is James Hook, who officially hung up his boots following the conclusion of his Ospreys contract last week.

His emergence from a youngster at Neath, thrust onto the international stage at an early age, coincided with my growing love for the game.

As my interest in the game continued to grow, so did Hook’s stock.

Other players have emerged and retired in the years in between, but Hook’s retirement yesterday – robbed of a last farewell by the protracted PRO14 season – almost feels like the final remnants of the game that I first experienced as a fledgling spectator moving on.

And it gets you thinking.

The last few months without rugby have presented many with the opportunity to go back and watch classic games from their youth.

In watching old games in their entirety, people feel different things. Some watch the old matches and feel the need to move back to those days, others simply scoff at the quality of days gone by.

But, for me, watching games from when I seriously got into rugby isn’t about judging whether the game was better then or now. It’s about reliving the memories, not the product, and looking back on the stars of yesteryear before their futures were decided.

It’s with more than a touch of hindsight that I’ve watched back any number of Wales matches between 2006 and 2008 in the last couple of months.

And watching Hook in those games, and then actually speaking to him for a podcast recently that looked over those matches, you remember the hype that surrounded a young player who was capped before playing a game for a region.

A player who, before his 22nd birthday, had salvaged a draw from the bench against Australia and single-handedly masterminded victory over England.

Before his 23rd, he’d won a Grand Slam.

James Hook converts against Australia in 2006

Even finding old clips of him playing sevens at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, you sense you’re watching something incredible when he waltzes through defences with ease.

His was a special talent and the excitement in Welsh rugby reflected that.

And just as we reflect on Hook’s career now he’s called time on it. Many muse on what might have been.

Should Hook should have won more caps? It’s a question that’s often asked.

In fairness to the man, he didn’t exactly do too badly on the cap tally. He finished with 81 and yet many wonder whether he should have passed a century in the red jersey.

It’s understandable why those questions were raised.

His versatility has been deemed as much a curse during his career as it was a blessing.

Throughout his 81 caps, the longest spell he had solely in the 10 jersey was just five games – starting with that virtuoso performance against England in 2007.

Otherwise, his Wales appearances flitted between different positions.

10, 12, 13 and 15. Under Gareth Jenkins and then Warren Gatland, Hook bounced between those jerseys – rarely stringing together more than a handful of appearances in one before being shifted soon enough.

From his debut in 2006 to the 2011 World Cup, the Wales coaching staff knew that Hook simply had to be in the starting XV, even if they weren’t sure where his best position was.

And so he ran the show against England in 2007 and then 2008 from fly-half, before breaking their defence down in 2010 from outside centre.

The only certainty was that Hook had to involved, even if where he should be involved was less clear.

And then, after the 2011 World Cup, Gatland’s perception of Hook seemingly changed.

From starting 23 Tests in a red jersey in the four years preceding the 2011 World Cup, he made just three starts in the same amount of time following it.

The statistic that shows how Gatland seemingly sold shares in Hook is the number of appearances he made for Wales off the bench. Only three players have stepped off the replacement bench on more occasions than Hook’s 31 – Dwayne Peel, Ken Owens and Gethin Jenkins.

So there are valid reasons for believing that Hook might have won more caps – not just for Wales. The fact he was the only replacement to not get on for the British and Irish Lions during the Third Test against South Africa in 2009 might still rankle.

As such, a Lions cap ultimately eluded him.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that whether Hook should have won more caps or not doesn’t really matter. The man himself doesn’t concern with it.

“I remember looking at Neil Jenkins during his testimonial and thinking I’d love to reach the number of caps,” Hook told Gist Vile’s Welsh Rugby Podcast back in January.

“I could look at it and say I could have more caps, but then maybe I wouldn’t have won the number of caps if I wasn’t as versatile. There’s pros and cons to it and I’m happy with it.

“What happened has happened and you can’t have any regrets.”

His take on matters is that while his versatility didn’t always allow him to focus on fly-half as much as he might like, it also allowed him to perhaps win more caps.

Ultimately, that’s the sort of character Hook is. He saw highs and lows with Wales – World Cup heartbreaks and Grand Slam glory – and all from different positions and standings in the squad.

He’s happy with his lot and why shouldn’t he be? Only 15 men have played for Wales more than him.

But more than that, he’s still the man who celebrated his first cap on Welsh soil with a bonfire with his family in Baglan.

He’s still the man who has phoned his grandparents, Will and Betty, before every single match – from schoolboys rugby right up to the top of the international game.

As much as its testament to his talents that there are those who think an 81-cap international who won two Grand Slams, reached a World Cup semi-final and went on a Lions tour could have achieved more, so too is it testament to his character and humility that many have also called him underrated on social media since his retirement.

Part of the attraction of re-watching those old matches is seeing the likes of Hook before their rugby futures had been written.

We know how his rugby career played out, but now there’s the question of what he’ll do next.

Coaching? Media work? Writing children’s book? Something else, perhaps?

It’s all on the table and his future post-rugby is yet to be written.

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