Star man: Ryan Jones

Things change quickly in rugby, just ask Ryan Jones. Back in November he had “the worst 20 minutes of my rugby career”. First he was responsible for conceding the late penalty that allowed Fiji to draw 16-16 with Wales at the Millennium Stadium. Then, after he had trudged into the changing room, Warren Gatland announced that Matthew Rees would lead the side against New Zealand the following week, stripping Jones of the captaincy he had held since the start of 2008.

Come the RBS 6 Nations, Gatland selected him as a lock rather than in his preferred back-row position, and with Bradley Davies and Alun Wyn Jones such a dynamic duo in the engine room it seemed the former skipper was destined to spend much of the championship on the bench. However, an injury to Andy Powell early in the opening game against England saw Jones come on at No 8, and he started the next four games in the role and proved to be one of Wales’ standout performers in the tournament. He even ended the Six Nations as Wales captain, taking over when Rees was replaced against France.

Despite the upward spiral from a personal perspective, however, Jones was frustrated by the way Wales’ campaign petered out. They had a chance to win the championship against France – albeit with a 27-point winning margin required – but they simply didn’t turn up at the Stade de France, lost 28-9 and slumped to fourth in the final table. “Personally I thoroughly enjoyed the tournament,” says Jones.

“I played a lot of rugby and I did it with a smile on my face. I’m enjoying my rugby. But that doesn’t detract from the disappointment. You don’t often get in the position of competing for the championship and that’s what we were doing when we arrived at the Stade de France. Opportunities to do that are few and far between, and at this point in my career when we miss them I feel it. We didn’t deserve to finish fourth.”

Many pointed to mental frailties for the way Wales crumbled in Paris – a claim Jones strongly denies – but what do the squad need to put right between now and the World Cup this autumn? “We’ve got to be technically and tactically efficient,” he says. “We have to make the right decisions at the right times and we can do that by being exposed to training under pressure, by learning in that environment.

“We were technically poor in Paris and made too many errors, conceding turnovers and not being accurate in the way we played. We need to step up and thrive on the disappointment of that night.”

Making it to New Zealand 2011 is something Jones is “desperate” to do after injury forced him to miss the last tournament in France, but he did tick another achievement off his to-do list during the Six Nations.

He won his 50th cap against Ireland – not that the experience went as smoothly as planned. “I was poorly that week so it was touch-and-go whether I was going to play,” he admits. “You don’t really think about it until it’s on your doorstep and it was a huge occasion – something I’ll treasure forever.”

The honour also gave him the chance to run out onto the Millennium Stadium pitch first, part of the captaincy role he misses. “I don’t get to do the fun bit anymore – walking out first. It has been difficult. It meant the world to me and I miss it dearly, but I always said it was only ever a seat I was keeping warm for someone else.

“I’ve just had to move on, but I still have a function in this team. I’ve handed the reins over to Matthew and I try to support him as much as I can. It’s about playing a supporting role with the youngsters too.”

Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton, who formed an impressive back-row triumvirate with Jones, would agree with that last comment. Warburton says: “Someone said he’s like a father figure for us! Ryan’s been under pressure lots of times and knows what calls to make and how to deal with that pressure. He’s a great guy to have in between us.”

As well as his back-row buddies, Jones believes Wales have a lot of young talent in their ranks – pointing to that as just one positive to take from the Six Nations. “Alun Wyn and Bradley have established themselves as international second-rows. Jonathan Davies and George North have been good additions, and Craig Mitchell didn’t get the credit he deserved. No one gave him a shout going into the tournament at tighthead but he was nothing short of superb.

“We’re better than we were pre-Six Nations. We ground out three wins – results that we couldn’t get several months ago. Players have come in and put their hands up, which can only be good for Wales. We’ll make sure we come back as a better team. That’s what we’ve all got to do as a group of individuals. We need to fire on all cylinders.”

Jones has been doing that for the past few months – and Wales fans will hope he keeps doing that all the way to the World Cup.

This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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