9:12am Saturday 14th September 2013
By Will Bain
MIKE Hook knew his career was over the minute the doctor told him the news.
A broken C4 and C5 vertebrate in his neck would mean a memorial game in memory of the great Steve Junna Jones wouldn’t just be his last in a Pontypool shirt, but his last game of rugby full stop.
“When the doctor told me what had happened, there wasn’t really another thought in my mind. I knew that was the end of my playing career.
“ I had a young family at home and I had to think of that. It just shows you how dangerous rugby can be and made me realise I had been pretty lucky not to come off even worse,” Hook explains.
He was just 26 when he was forced into retirement.
It was the denouement of what has become a sadly not unfamiliar passion play on the modern professional rugby player; tormented and teased by talent and injury in equal measure.
Hook was a fabulously gifted footballer. A ball playing ten, with a dead-eye for goal, who certainly came from the factory under the mountain where they build the number 10s.
After discovering the game on a muddy Sunday at Abervaon Quins U7s, he quips that the minute his shorts had mud on them he knew the game was for him.
He starred at Central Junior School in Port Talbot, captaining the West Wales U11 side at the Arms Park against East Wales before going on to wear the red no.10 of Wales at every age grade right up to Under 21s.
It was perhaps there that Hook’s talent was most startlingly obvious.
He scored 21 points on his debut as Wales edged out England 36-35 at Newbury and went on to be part of an U21 Grand Slam winning side including the likes of Adam Jones, Mike Phillips, Ryan Jones and a chap called Gavin Henson.
But the roll call of clubs he can count himself as an alumni of tells you all you needed to know about what happened next.
Newport, Bristol, Llanelli, rugby league side Celtic Crusaders, Redruth, The Pertemps Bees and Pontypool all had Hook on their books, but injuries including two major shoulder reconstructions meant his career went into staccato.
Learning to deal with those frustrations, caused by forces somewhat out of his control, perhaps prepared him perfectly for the tribulations of being head coach and allowed Hook the benefit of hard earned perspective which was needed during last year’s at times seemingly insurmountably difficult rebuilding year at Pooler.
“I think the garden was looking pretty good after the injury,” he jokes about his spell before coaching “and I wasn’t really sure what was next but coaching came up and i wanted to stay involved in sport and the game.”
He joined then Pooler coach Gareth Lintern’s team and later Newport City Council where he still works in the sports development team.
When Lintern went, James Chapron, now with the Dragons and Pooler’s new head coach promoted him to defence coach.
“It was sort of in our third year with James where the real problems off the pitch began,” Hook explains.
“I felt we’d managed to stabilise the club and that we were making progress. But then you had the WRU decision ( to reduce the size of the Premiership meaning Pontypool would be relegated) and the financial problems started.”
Since then that job in the back garden must have looked awfully appealing.
The Pooler back room team had been part code breakers, part firefighters, tackling problems and trying to ascertain fully from the top of the club what was going on.
That frustration became too much even for the phlegmatic Hook.
Last Summer, at the height of the confusion following the failed High Court challenge with the union, Hook quit, all be it for a day.
“We didn’t have a clue what the budget was going to be, what the situation was, we just weren’t told anything,” he says. “I just felt that it was unfair on us as coaches and on the supporters. I felt very strongly about that, I felt we were misled and kept in the dark so it was a decision I had to make. “
It was Team manager Shaun Rees, physio Emily Buckley and the directors who persuaded him to change his mind , and it’s been that core close knit group sticking together which has helped Pooler survive.
Even then though last year was tough; the loss of players, the two long losing streaks, the heavy defeats.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t tough,” says Hook, “but we always thought as a coaching team it was there. You do question yourself but we knew we were on the right track, we had to keep reminding ourselves of where we’d come from.”
Was it worth the hassle, the fan criticism, did he think about quitting: “I decided to take the challenge with this team after the Summer and I was always sticking with it. Quitting is not what I’m about,” he says definitively.
The buoyant Summer of good financial news and strong recruitment was born out last weekend in a blistering bonus point winning start to the season at Beddau.
And he hopes that will be converted in to a strong showing this term.
“The place is buzzing. It’s totally different to this time last year in every way. The boys are buzzing and the people in charge, the way they work, it couldn’t be more different really.”
He says top six is the aim. On last week’s showing that looks realistic.
“Everyone wants to see the club do well. There’s no selfish people here. People might have different styles, interests, be different people, but we’re all here for Pontypool.,” Hook says.
He certainly is. He arrived at Beddau at 10am, plans meticulously for every session and his vision for the club has certainly impressed.
Having fought for a long time through the darkness, the tough times, perhaps that mix of talent and hard work, is about to get the break it needs to flourish.
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