Gatland hopes centre around versatile Hook
THE focus early this week may have been firmly on Lee Byrne -- and his availability or otherwise -- but the most significant Welsh selection yesterday was that of James Hook at outside-centre. It is there that Wales' backs coach, Rob Howley, believes Hook's future lies.
The multi-talented Hook could probably play in every position in the Wales back division save for scrum-half, but such versatility has been the curse of many over the years and Howley is hopeful that the Osprey will settle to his role alongside the strapping Jamie Roberts.
The potential of that combination is what really excites Wales and if Hook can quickly gel with Roberts in the manner that Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll did for the Lions last summer, opponents are going to have their hands full.
"James has the skill-set to play in a variety of positions," Howley said yesterday.
"You sometimes feel like you just have to find a role for him, but we think we may have found his position.
"We tried Jamie at outside centre in the autumn mainly due to injury problems elsewhere in the squad, but he is back in his preferred position at 12 and we are excited about seeing James in this new international role as well.
"Over the last 10 days or so we have run with two different teams, with both Lee and James Hook taking a turn at full-back, and you have to respect the professionalism of both players and indeed of the whole squad.
"We have not let the doubt over Lee's availability disrupt things, but it was always going to be a boost to be able to name the first-choice Lions full-back in the side.
"There are obvious repercussions throughout the back line, too, as we have been able to select James Hook in partnership with Jamie Roberts."
Hook is among 10 Lions from last summer's South Africa tour in the Wales line-up, as Warren Gatland's team seek a fourth successive Six Nations victory over England.
It would have been 11, but hooker Matthew Rees had a recurrence of groin trouble after testing the injury at the weekend, so Cardiff's Gareth Williams packs down between Lions props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones.
Williams, a real workhorse in the loose as well as the tight, has not featured in a Six Nations Test for almost seven years, but his outstanding Heineken Cup and Magners League form this season sees him leapfrog the Ospreys' Huw Bennett to replace Rees.
Elsewhere, there is an experienced and battle-hardened look to Gatland's pack, while two of Williams' Blues colleagues gain recalls behind the scrum.
Wing Tom James is preferred to Leigh Halfpenny, and the experienced Gareth Cooper gets the nod ahead of club colleague Richie Rees and the Scarlets' Martin Roberts at scrum-half. Cooper, who played in the autumn Tests, starts in the absence of Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel, who are both injured. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Wales (v England) -- L Byrne; T James, J Hook, J Roberts, S Williams; S Jones; G Cooper; G Jenkins, G Williams, A Jones, A W Jones, L Charteris, A Powell, M Williams, R Jones (capt). Reps: H Bennett, P James, B Davies, J Thomas, R Rees, A Bishop, L Halfpenny.