By Alan Dymock
AGE. IT is tricky to come to terms with. Grey wings in your hair; you’re distinguished. Too many crow’s feet; even worse, you can’t judge a dancing competition any more.
For Wales captain Ryan Jones, 31, advancing years mean that he has benefitted from a change in attitude whilst coming to terms with how things pan out. He knows his role and he will do it, come what may.
“At my age being captain is something I treasure”, he tells me on a drive back to his beloved West Wales. “The position is one I hold dear and with my experience I have learnt that I can just try to do it my way. Some can take it or leave it – and there is no right or wrong way of captaining a side – but you cannot try to emulate someone else.
“In rugby you will get found out pretty quick if you are not up to the job. However, you can mature into a role and I have found that it does get easier. Rugby seasons come in cycles, and once you have gone through it, you know you can do it again.”
What he has said is something that, inadvertently at least, demonstrates how comfortable Jones looks now. In previous stints as Wales’ captain, at times, his crown was heavy, with expectations high and a whole nation crying for a captain-martyr capable of genius and modesty all rolled into one. Now he appears to enjoy his role as the everyman in this year’s Six Nations. Not a mythical master, but the trusty legionnaire who ensures that everything gets done just right.
“The last couple of weeks have been going well,” he says. “We have huge confidence and I know you cannot captain a side from the bench. But it is not about me. We have Sam (Warburton), Adam (Jones), Alun Wyn (Jones)and Leigh (Halfpenny). All of them make valid contributions to the side and it’s about being able to facilitate them.
“We had a sluggish start against Ireland, but against France and Italy we were making positive errors; human errors going forward. We’re not making errors in the areas where we could be punished. My overriding emotion in France after our win was relief. However previous results will have no bearing on the next fixture.”
So what happens when that familiar pressure comes back, nipping at the head again, making you look too far ahead?
“Pressure is par for the course and it is all about column inches and exposure, but you have to develop your own coping strategy. People may look ahead to Wales versus England and irrespective of the stakes it is still a huge fixture. Yet – and I accept it’s a cliché – you have to take one game at a time and we have massive respect for Scotland. We know that the breakdown will be key to the game and the speed of ball will be hugely important. Scotland have been strong there and they have a rejuvenated home crowd.
Jones says that it would be naive to think Wales haven’t looked at other ways Scotland could play. “Being competent in many different facets of the game is the key to a good Test side. But you can’t afford to look too much at the other team. You have to focus on yourself. We won a Grand Slam by making marginal decisions. By getting into more positions to win. You have to have faith in the process because change can take months.”
Many do believe in Jones. He proven durability and an iron will. At one point he admits to me that his greatest strength is that he is a natural competitor.
However, his experience and tenacity never turns to hubris. Instead, humility reigns, and as he is reminded that the bookies strongly suggest that some smart money may be stacked on him being Lions tourist this summer, he shies away. Late call-ups, in 2005 and 2009, have taught him to be patient and respectful and he would rather trumpet others.
“Anyone playing international rugby who says they have not thought about the Lions is lying, but I’m realistic. There are only two more games in the shop window and I have gotten where I am on the back of good team performances.
“If I was picking the team, of course I would go, but there are an awful lot of very good back rows. I will just go on holiday and make sure my phone is switched on,” he chuckles.
His willingness to serve common cause may just mean that he should hold off booking that holiday.
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