Gatland is forced to cope without Hook for Oz test
JAMES Hook will be the only Wales squad member returning to France ahead of next weekend's final clash of the autumn series against Australia.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has revealed that Hook is heading back to Perpignan this week because the match sits outside of the International Rugby Board's Test window.
However, Gatland said Wales's other France-based players, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins and Luke Charteris have been freed to play against the Wallabies, giving the Kiwi a welcome boost as he looks to mastermind a victory to salvage pride from a difficult autumn.
But Paul James looks set to be on Bath duty this weekend.
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With Hook absent, Gatland does face a dilemma surrounding fly-half cover for Rhys Priestland, especially if Dan Biggar fails to overcome the shoulder injury he suffered against Samoa.
If Biggar is ruled out Priestland would be the only recognised ten in the squad and it could mean Gatland having to delve into the regions or even across the border to the Aviva Premiership for back-up.
The New Zealander will also be hoping for a positive medical bulletin on Bradley Davies (concussion), Ryan Jones (concussion), Jamie Roberts (hip), George North (hip) and Ian Evans (knee).
Wales will take on Australia with their top-eight seeding in the world rankings under serious threat.
Ireland's 46-24 hammering of Argentina in Dublin has seen the Pumas drop to ninth, with Samoa, who pushed France all the way in Paris on Saturday, up to eighth.
However, another defeat to Robbie Deans's men — Wales's seventh in a row — would see Wales drop enough ranking points to finish below both Argentina and Samoa and end up in the third tier of nations alongside Scotland, Italy and Tonga for next Monday's World Cup draw in London.
At least Gatland can head into Saturday's series finale on the back of an encouraging second-half display against the All Blacks.
"It was a game of two halves," said the New Zealander. "We were disappointed with our accuracy in the first half and it took us a while to come to terms with the intensity and pace of the game.
"But we showed a lot of character in the second half and that was pleasing.
"We started taking the game to the All Blacks and I felt it was an excellent second-half display.
"We could easily have thrown in the towel, but we didn't do that. We dominated possession and territory and put an outstanding All Blacks side under pressure for long periods of the game.
"I was speaking to Sam (Warburton) and he said it was a bit like the first Test in Australia in the summer.
"We got caught out with the intensity early on and grew into the game after that.
"Teams like the All Blacks experience that level of pace and intensity week in, week out, unfortunately we don't. But we have to learn from it."
Gatland explained that he had hoped to introduce Wales's remarkable 'all-in' line-out that saw Scott Williams touch down midway through the second half early in the game, and that was part of the decision-making behind going for an attacking line-out instead of handing the kicking tee to Leigh Halfpenny in the opening minutes.
"Yes, we were going to try to use that line-out early on," he said.
"We were trying to put them under pressure and keep them down in their 22 and then take some chances off that."
He also praised the performance of skipper Warburton as well as Scarlets duo Liam Williams and Aaron Shingler, who were winning only their second and third Test caps.
"Sam was excellent all day," he added. "His carrying was good, I thought there was one penalty call against him that was tough and I thought he did a great job when you consider the seven he was up against was world class.
"The younger players would have learned a lot. I thought Liam Williams was great today and got better as the game went on and Aaron Shingler, who is improving all the time, was excellent when he came on."