James Hook believes Wales can end their wait for a Rugby World Cup final appearance and ease the pain of a last-four defeat in 2011 that he says still hurts.
Wales meet South Africa in the semi-final on Sunday, and Ospreys back Hook admits the memories of losing 9-8 to France eight years ago will come flooding back before kick-off.
On that wet Auckland night, the fates seemed to conspire against Wales – whether it was Sam Warburton’s early red card, an injury to influential prop Adam Jones, Hook slipping over in taking a kick, or Leigh Halfpenny’s long-range penalty miss at the death.
“It still hurts – 100 per cent,” Hook told the PA news agency.
“For everyone that was involved. The players, management and staff. The whole country. We had such a good squad, but it wasn’t to be.
“It was so disappointing because the squad showed how good they were by going on to win the Grand Slam in 2012 and the Six Nations in 2013.
“A lot of the boys were so young and fearless and felt they could beat anyone.
“New Zealand were probably not as good as they are now – and we fancied ourselves to win the World Cup.”
Hook had landed an early penalty at Eden Park and lost his footing in taking another before Warburton was banished after 19 minutes.
The Wales captain lifted Vincent Clerc off his feet with a big hit and then turned him in the air, leaving the Frenchman crashing onto his back and referee Alain Rolland reaching for a red card.
Hook said: “At first I thought ‘that’s a great tackle’. It was only when you saw it slowed down that you realised it probably was a red card.
“It was unfortunate for Sam. It wasn’t a reckless challenge, but it took the wind out of our sails.
“But Mike Phillips scored a try and we were right in it until the end. We had opportunities to win it and then came Leigh’s kick.
“He struck it pretty well, but it fell just short. It was agonising and I just remember how devastated everybody was.
“Warren Gatland was obviously gutted like the rest of us, but there was not a lot he could say. Words don’t really help at that point.”
Wales would go on to suffer a 21-18 defeat to Australia in the bronze final – a game Hook says was “difficult to get up for”.
New Zealand would eventually be crowned world champions for the second time after edging out France 8-7 in a nervy final.
Eight years on and Gatland’s Wales reign is nearing its end. Some of Hook’s former team-mates – Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies and Alun Wyn Jones – have a shot at World Cup redemption in Japan.
“It’s going to be a huge physical game,” Hook said.
“Gatland has always prided himself on the physicality of his teams, getting over the gain line and playing off momentum ball.
“Wales have won the last four games against South Africa and won’t fear them.
“But South Africa have won a lot over the last year and are a better team than when Wales beat them last.
“South Africa have got some huge men in the pack, but if Wales can stop them there I don’t think there’s much between them. It’s a game they can win.”
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