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Six Nations, Sport

Six Nations: Wales international James Hook was close to playing fly-half admits Rob Howley

Rob Howley, Wales, James Hook, rugby union, Six Nations

Rob Howley, Wales backs coach

Wales’ coaching staff held a “long debate” about handing James Hook the fly-half playmaker’s role for their RBS 6 Nations showdown against England.

Versatile Hook will start at full-back on Friday night, but could easily have ousted 95 times-capped Stephen Jones instead.

Backs coach Rob Howley admitted Hook had made a strong case following his fly-half cameos for the Ospreys during their Magners League games over Christmas.

Howley said: “We spoke about James going into 10. It was a long debate. We’ve gone for Test-experienced half-backs, two British and Irish Lions (Jones and Mike Phillips). Steve hasn’t done anything wrong.

“James showed that when he played for the Ospreys over the Christmas period, when he went in at first receiver, he offered a running and creative threat.

“It’s up to us as a backline to get him into the game as often as possible. That is one of the goals for Friday night.

“But we also believe that what Steve can bring us is a certain structure you need in the international game. It’s about earning the right to play in those channels and about being direct.

“Steve and Mike, physically, over the autumn series were really effective defenders, which is key.”

Jones has been part of Wales’ fixtures and fittings since making his Test debut in 1998, and remains a tactical controller of the highest class.

But such is Hook’s game-breaking prowess that Wales feel they must find room for him somewhere, whether at full-back, fly-half or in the centre, where head coach Warren Gatland has gone for a midfield partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

Jones said: “The way I look at it is it’s always the same when I come into camp. It’s a massive honour to be here and you never expect to be given the jersey. If you are lucky enough to be given the honour, you make the most of that.

“You can’t worry about external things, the things you can’t control. All you can do is concentrate on your own performance.”

Hook’s selection in the number 15 shirt means new Clermont Auvergne signing Lee Byrne occupying an unfamiliar bench role, where his fellow substitutes will include former captain Ryan Jones and 2005 Lions Test scrum-half Dwayne Peel.

Howley added: “Lee Byrne misses out solely by virtue of the fact he has had limited game-time after injury.

“He will offer us some impact from the bench, which is fairly experienced in itself and will undoubtedly be utilised during the evening.”

Elsewhere, Scarlets’ Morgan Stoddart fills the right-wing vacancy created when Leigh Halfpenny suffered an ankle injury earlier this week, while Ospreys props Paul James and Craig Mitchell take over from injured Lions Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones.

Gatland resisted any temptation to switch James across the scrum from loosehead, while 24-year-old Mitchell wins his fifth cap, but makes a first Test start.

There are seven changes from Wales’ autumn Test series finale against New Zealand in November, plus a positional switch as Hook moves from centre to full-back.

Roberts, meanwhile, returns after missing the entire autumn series through injury, and Wales’ record try-scorer Shane Williams has recovered from a dislocated shoulder to win his 76th cap.

Assessing the front-row selection, Gatland said: “We were really impressed with the way the Ospreys scrummaged against Toulon (last month).

“We see Paul James as a genuine loosehead and we wanted to leave him in that position.

“The thing with scrummaging at the moment, with the amount of re-sets in the game and penalties at scrum-time, the question is can you get an effective platform to work off?

“If you look at the game at the moment, there are probably only two or three opportunities during the game to get that platform. That will be key for both teams.”

Wales will go into the England clash having lost six and drawn one of their last seven Tests. They have not won since the final weekend of last season’s Six Nations tournament.

But Gatland added: “It’s an important game for both teams, we’ve both got aspirations for the Six Nations. If you win this game you get off to a good start, which breeds confidence and breeds momentum.

“It’s important for England as well. You are going to see two really motivated teams on Friday night that are desperate to get a performance and a result.”

 

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