Fractured and free from anything except a flickering glimpse of attacking prowess, Wales’ turgid tussle with France ten days ago was fraught with anxiety. Two stifled, uncertain sides sought to right ignominious wrongs, resulting inevitably in the mouldiest of stalemates.
Thankfully for Rob Howley, his captain thrived on the front line. As the team stared down the barrel of nine consecutive Test defeats, Ryan Jones was simply superb. Not overly prominent, although an inch-perfect grubber-kick that dribbled into touch five metres from Les Bleus’ line would have made Phil Bennett proud. Rather, the 31 year-old revelled in the dark arts to de-rail the hosts’ fluidity.
Of the 13 tackles Jones made, all but four took place in and around his own 22-metre area, testament to how timely those interventions were. While he may not have clocked up as impressive a figure as Ireland lock Mike McCarthy managed in Cardiff on the opening weekend – a staggering 20 – the determined defensive contributions of Wales’ stand-in skipper laid victory foundations. Certainly, one perfectly-executed choke-challenge on the indomitable Louis Picamoles in the first half was a magnificent example of back-to-the-wall brilliance.
The statistics, on the face of it, are less kind to Jones’ attacking prowess. An aggregate of 16 metres from eight carries suggests that he was man-handled with ball in hand. However, a brief geographical glance tells you that each of his truck-ups came in the opposition half. In short, as much as Jones disrupted France, he helped to assert a structure that has been glaringly absent from Wales’ rugby since last spring. At the heart of the rumble that preceded Dan Biggar’s delicious chip to George North, there he was, driving teammates over the gain-line and through the heart of their adversaries.
Granted, very little of what Howley’s men put together was spectacular, but that defines the man who will lead them once more in Rome. Alongside the equally tireless rookie Andrew Coombs, Jones should have been the sure-fire nominee for man-of-the-match. That a gaggle of French media recommended the more eye-catching Leigh Halfpenny for coronation was fitting.
In fact, as the gnarled Osprey cheerfully outlined the aim to storm to the Six Nations title at the final whistle, he would have been extremely surprised to receive praise for such an inconspicuous performance. Of course, inconspicuous and invaluable are by no means mutually exclusive.
Fiercely industrious but calmly pragmatic, Jones might well live by that mantra. With the added bonus of immense charisma, he is – as Sam Warburton declared prior to this tournament beginning – an extremely sturdy presence in any outfit. It should not come as a surprise that has captained Wales in 31 Tests and will extend his record as the most prolific leader in the proud nation’s history on Saturday. Yet it does.
Perhaps as a result of an international career that has undulated over its 71 caps – seeing drastic troughs such as a 16-16 draw with Fiji in 2010, as well last autumn’s grim reverse to Samoa – the shining achievements are less revered. Alongside more celebrated peers Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, Ryan Jones has been a quietly crucial part of the 2005, 2008 and 2012 Grand Slams. Eight years ago, he was a beacon for the British & Irish Lions, putting in marvellous showings from number eight as the All Blacks eclipsed the tourists.
Now, selected to start only because of Warburton’s shoulder complaint a fortnight ago, this warrior seems more of a stop-gap. Paris in peril was the perfect situation for Jones to come back into the side and galvanise a catastrophically injured set of colleagues. But, realistically, he could be thrust out of Wales’ match-day squad even before England’s trip to Cardiff.
If Howley reverts back to his habit of distributing places on reputation, the back row for the last clash before Lions selection will consist of Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate alongside Warburton. Justin Tipuric would not be denied a spot on the bench. With Ian Evans-Coombs partnership developing nicely and Alun Wyn Jones back fit, there would be no room in the second row either.
Still, those debates are for another day. The visit of Stuart Lancaster’s maturing team is an eternity away. For Wales, these next fixtures against Italy and Scotland present potential trap-doors that would leave them in far worse shape than they were before kick-off over The Channel. During what will be close encounters, the pragmatism of Jones is so important. Addressing a press conference earlier this week, the man himself foreshadowed as much.
“It makes no difference whether you are captain game by game or for the duration,” he explained with typical humility. “It’s just about you as a player preparing and contributing to the team.
“I want to be part of a successful national team. Whatever role that requires, I’m more than happy to do it.”
Over the years, Jones’ role with Wales has varied hugely. Now though, as a caretaker in the most literal meaning of the word, his country needs him more than ever.
By Charlie Morgan
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