Thursday, March 22, 2007

Wales 27 England 18: Hook wins the shootout of the young guns

Wales' prodigy, James Hook, claimed the day of the twentysomethings to avoid the wooden spoon and leave new England with much work to do
By Tim Glover at The Millennium Stadium

Published: 18 March 2007

James Hook, with an astonishingly mature performance, upstaged England's young pretenders to guide Wales to a face-saving victory here last night. Not surprisingly, Hook was made man of a hugely entertaining match after contributing 22 points with a full house - a try, a conversion, four penalties and a drop goal.
It meant that Wales avoided a whitewash in the Six Nations and finished the campaign on a high note.
Gareth Jenkins, the coach whose record since succeeding Mike Ruddock had been two victories from 10 games - Canada and the Pacific Islands - greeted this success with a huge degree of relief, as did his countrymen.
The Welsh will forgive a coach anything, even a defeat to Italy, so long as they can toast victory over that lot from across the Severn Bridge. Leaving the best to last with an exhilarating victory, Wales also managed to sidestep the dreaded wooden spoon, which ended in the hands of Scotland, a useful utensil for serving porridge.
Jenkins was fortunate in one respect. But for an injury to Stephen Jones, Hook would have been at centre instead of wearing the No 10 jersey which obviously fits him so well.
It wasn't just the youngster's accumulation of points that was so impressive; he seems to have the head of Solomon on those young shoulders. Having been responsible for Wales's flying start, he again took control in the final quarter with nine unanswered points. But that was by no means the limit to his talents. His tactical kicking was also of the highest order.
Afterwards Gareth Thomas, restored to the captaincy following a four-week ban, said he wanted to dedicate the victory to Stephen Jones, who was present in the dressing room. Thomas said: "As a nation now we'll go crazy and drink the bars dry. As players we can't go crazy because millions will do it for us. We can't just analyse the game against England and think everything's great."
The dilemma now for Jenkins is where to play Hook, for the coach has made life difficult for himself by nominating Jones as his captain for the World Cup.
England had learned that France, with a late try against the Scots, had secured the championship on points difference and they were still digesting that piece of bad news when they made the worst possible start. Joe Worsley was out of it after taking a bang within the first minute and then Flood's clearance kick was charged down by Hook and as Mathew Tait slipped, the stand-off had a simple task in touching down.
Wales were never headed, although they were hauled back and suffered several agonising moments. Tait losing his footing was the first indication that the surface of the Millennium Stadium pitch - the roof was closed - was treacherous. The number of players who couldn't keep their footing was beyond a joke. Two years ago here, when Tait was sent packing by Gavin Henson, who went on to kick the winning penalty, England complained that their scrummaging was undermined by the shifting nature of the turf.
Last night they could have no complaints, although they could point to the early loss of Worsley and the hamstrung Mike Catt, who departed less than two minutes into the second half to be replaced by Shane Geraghty. Having pulled back from being 15-0 down in the opening quarter, the England forwards were a huge disappointment and possession dried up.
"The Welsh managed the game much better than we did," Brian Ashton, the England coach said. "We knew they would come at us hard in the first 20 minutes and things like charge downs don't help. I've learnt a lot about our personnel in this tournament." When Catt departed, the captaincy passed to Jason Robinson. It is not an issue that will bother Ashton over the next few weeks. "I'm going on holiday and I'm not thinking about it," he said.
Wales were flying, Hook adding a penalty to his converted try, and after Shane Williams created havoc with a couple of darting runs, the Wales forwards besieged the England line and Chris Horsman crashed over for his first try for his country. Wales were 15-0 up and it could have been more, Shane Williams being the chief culprit in failing to find unmarked players.
It was Catt, with a startling break in the 31st minute, who gave England some breathing space. His chip ahead inside the Wales 22 bounced at right angles, wrong-footing all except the scrum-half Harry Ellis, who scored. Flood added a drop goal to his conversion for 15-10. But Wales always had Hook. His penalty just before the break made it 18-10 but then the excellent Ellis made an electrifying break and his pass to the left found Robinson at full pace. Not even Hook could snag him. So England went in at the break trailing 18-15 and that soon became 18-18 thanks to a Flood penalty after a dangerous run by David Strettle.
This was not the signal for England to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Instead the Welsh forwards set about re-establishing control and it was their passionate display that enabled Hook to win the match with two penalties and a drop goal.
"It's been tough, it's been hard," Gareth Jenkins said, "but this job was always going to be. This victory only proves to me that this team has great potential and we can be excited about our visit to Australia in the summer. Our forwards have grown through the championship and against England they came of age." Not half as much as James Hook.

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