James Hook has been ear-marked as the long term successor to his British & Irish Lions team mate Stephen Jones in the Wales No 10 jersey.
The multi-talented Ospreys player has been battling with Jones for the right to wear the most coveted jersey in the Welsh game, but slipped behind the ultra-reliable Jones for both Wales and the Lions.
But Wales coach Warren Gatland, who was hugely impressed with the way Hook grabbed his chances with the Lions this summer, believes Hook is the answer once Jones, seven years his senior, steps out of the international arena.
“At the moment I am really pleased with the way Stephen Jones is performing, but one thing is certain, James is too good a player not to come through,” Gatland told the Western Mail.
“I think long term he is going to be a really top-quality international No 10, but whether that is a year or two away, who knows? People are talking about him as a centre or a full-back, but I think inside centre is the best alternative for him at the moment.
“And it won’t hurt him to play in a different position, even though he sees himself as a ten. With James I am always conscious that I need him in the squad because he is such a talent, it’s more about finding the right position for him.”
Hook played at centre, outside half and full back for the Lions on tour and was given a seat on the replacements bench for the third Test. That showed a remarkable advance for him following a patchy season for club and country.
But the difficulty facing Gatland as he prepares his Welsh side to face Australia and New Zealand in the Autumn is to find a way to incorporate Hook into his plans. If, as expected, Jones retains his place at outside half, then where else can Hook feature?
Gatland has Lions sensation Jamie Roberts to play at inside centre, Lions Test full back Lee Byrne to fit into the No 15 jersey and the in-form 2005 Lions Tom Shanklin to play at outside centre. He also has the possibility of calling on 2005 Lion Gavin Henson in his midfield if he regains full fitness and form.
“I’ve said before that outside-half is a position where players need to feel as though they are number one, and not going to be chopped and changed the moment one or two things don’t go well,” added Gatland.
“That was the approach we took with Stephen last year and I think it paid off with the way he played. It isn’t just about a player feeling he has a coach’s backing though, it is about the effect it has on the whole group.
“A player can lose confidence in his own ability if he is in and out of the side, but he will also start to doubt whether he has the respect of his team-mates if that is the case. I saw some real leadership from Stephen in the Six Nations and on the Lions tour and I think much of that was because he felt he was number one.
“He was really talkative, he bossed the guys, both in matches and in training, and just generally stepped up to the challenge in front of him.”