No one has played more Tests in the history of rugby than the Wales lock, so how has he stayed at the top of the game for 15 years? We talk to coaches and team-mates to discover the key to the Lions captain's longevity…
Alun Wyn Jones – by those who know him best
Alun Wyn Jones launches himself into the air. The Principality Stadium clock has ticked beyond 80 minutes and the match is won. A late try wouldn’t even give England a losing bonus point, such is Wales’ advantage at 40-24.
Yet still there is that determination, that focus, from Jones to win the restart, to secure possession so that his side can close out the victory on their terms. He rises higher than Maro Itoje and gets both hands on the ball. Game over.
It’s a moment from the Six Nations that epitomises Jones, as are his three tackles in 30 seconds in the 78th minute of the crazy Test in Paris that ultimately ended hopes of another Grand Slam. Relentless, consistent, driven… These are all words that have been used to describe Jones and they are all evident in those examples.
He’s been doing that at the top level for more than 15 years, in 157 Tests, the vast majority of which he’s played for the full 80 minutes. He’s won as many Grand Slams in his career as each of Ireland and Scotland have throughout history. He’s led the British & Irish Lions to a series-clinching third-Test victory in Australia. There have been trophies with the Ospreys and individual gongs too.
The statistics are remarkable – or, as Rhys Patchell puts it, “outrageous”. But what of the man behind the numbers?
Roger Blyth, the former Swansea and Wales full-back who is also a long-server on the Ospreys board, has known Jones since he was a boy. His youngest son started playing at Bonymaen, as Jones did, and he got on well with Jones’s late father, Tim, whose character traits he recognises in the Wales captain.
“A lot of that drive comes from his background, from his father,” says Blyth. “It comes through in the way he plays, that ‘I will never be beaten’ sort of thing. Tim was a great guy and very forthright; he would never give up on a cause.
“Alun Wyn is a very genuine guy, an intelligent man and he has opinions. He’s not afraid to speak his mind and has been fiercely critical of us (the Ospreys management) in the past. That’s what you expect from him; it’s sometimes difficult but it’s also honest and healthy. He’s fiercely loyal to his roots and the organisation, which he has represented with distinction to say the least.”
That loyalty – and frankness in exchanging views – also comes up in conversation with Andrew Hore, who spent eight years at the Ospreys, first as elite performance director and latterly as chief executive. He recalls how Jones gave his opinions but would be open to hearing others’ views too; it would all be about working together for the greater good and that circles back to his pride in his community.
“He’s a person who is comfortable making hard decisions and is prepared to have open and honest conversations,” says Hore, who is now CEO of the Blues franchise in New Zealand. “He loves his community and I think he feels a strong sense of social and moral obligation to his community.
“That’s why he keeps a strong relationship with Swansea University, with Bonymaen, has stuck with the Ospreys through thick and thin. He divines inner strength from that loyalty and sense of purpose.”
As well as demanding high standards from those off the pitch, he asks the same of those alongside him on it. Hore remembers an incident during a running test when Jones “ripped into a couple of guys because they weren’t going to the line”. Ken Owens has spoken of having to continually push himself in Wales training to match Jones’s efforts, the squad’s oldest player setting the bar.
It was much the same when he was one of the youngest. Mark Jones was on the wing when AWJ made his Wales debut at blindside against Argentina in 2006 and says: “His expectations of others were a bit different back then. He was new to the squad so I don’t remember him calling anyone out, but I do remember him delivering on what the coaches asked.
“He’d be flat out with whatever he did. I played with him then, coached him in 2013 and it’s no different now. Big engine, very keen trainer, high work-rate – he’s exactly the same.
“He has lost a bit of hair since – he had golden locks in Argentina – but he’s staying true to himself and hasn’t shaved his head yet!”
As things have taken a light-hearted turn, it’s worth dropping in another story from the centurion’s early days. Mark Jones recalls an Ospreys-Scarlets derby when he and Alun Wyn were chasing a kick. As the ball beat both of them to roll into touch, Mark noticed his opponent’s footwear. “‘A second-row in white boots?’ I said. He replied, ‘I’m making rugby sexy!’ It was quite a good comeback.”
Returning to the serious business of AWJ’s approach, when Toby Booth took over as Ospreys head coach last year, he wondered if Jones was simply trying to make an impression on his new boss given his performances in that first week of training.
Yet he was assured by the rest of the back-room team, guys who have played with Jones as well as coached him, that those markers were hit every day. “They went, ‘That’s Al’,” says Booth. “Every time, every minute – I wish there were more like him.”
Patchell, the Scarlets and Wales fly-half, had a somewhat different reaction when he saw Jones in training for the first time. He says: “I want to say terrifying – not because I was afraid or scared of him but because of the realisation that that’s the standard, that’s what world class looks like. It’s, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to hit that standard’.
“It’s almost a challenge; that’s the standard he hits and you’ve got to do everything you can to get there with him. That’s what we’re all aspiring to be and that’s what I find pretty inspirational. He’s a wonderful character everyone gravitates towards. A lot of people talk the talk; he does that and then he walks it.”
The ability to inspire others is a strong theme when discussing Jones. Hore believes a career that has spanned three decades has provided Jones with the know-how to excel in the captaincy role, saying: “Leadership is an artform you have to learn; you have to learn about working with different personality types and only experience gives you that. He has been through successful periods with the Ospreys and tough ones rebuilding. It’s the same with Wales. All those things add to his character.”
Booth highlights the respect Jones commands amongst team-mates and Blyth talks of his development as a leader, how the likes of Adam Beard will have become better players from working with him every day. Opponents, too, acknowledge Jones’s influence.
“He’s a barometer for Wales’ success,” says former Australia lock James Horwill, who started five Tests against Jones. “He’s a really resilient guy and any Wales team with Alun Wyn in is resilient, they don’t go away. That probably describes him well too! If he’s involved, the game is not going to be blown out by a big score; that’s the impact he has on the players around him.
“He doesn’t do the flash stuff – he’s not making big breaks or busting 100 tackles, the highlight showreel stuff – but he’s a grafter. He’s about high work-rate and high energy, and the way he performs is infectious for his team-mates. He has such an impact on the teams he’s been involved with in terms of confidence and determination.
“There was that period when we seemed to play Wales more than any other team and it was always very close; it came down to a kick or a try in the last minute. Games like that are high-pressure situations and can be that little bit niggly. The style both of us play is quite confrontational. There was nothing untoward, but he would always push the envelope as much as he could and try to get in your head a little bit, and I was definitely irritating the hell out of a lot of people!”
It’s clear Jones has ‘lead by example’ nailed. Strong leaders are also able to empower those around them, to delegate responsibilities for the betterment of the team. In the recent Six Nations it was Beard and Cory Hill calling the lineouts while the likes of Owens and Justin Tipuric are also key figureheads. Those supporting pillars are important to how the team functions.
When Patchell was thrust into the Wales No 10 shirt for the first time during the 2018 championship, Jones backed him to guide the back-line and the attacking game, and that faith boosted the fly-half’s confidence.
“He leaves space for you to fill, he doesn’t try to dominate,” says Patchell. “In 2018, when I played Scotland and England, I almost felt like he let me, not do what I want but put my stamp on things for those couple of weeks. I was pretty young, 24, but he didn’t push how he wanted the team to attack, it was almost ‘That’s your domain, I trust you to do it’.”
That’s the leadership angle, but what of the longevity? How has he managed to maintain such high standards for a decade and a half? Remember, his career is not just made up of 157 Tests and 200-plus Ospreys appearances, it’s the thousands of training sessions during the past 16 seasons at pro level – and when you’re in the front five those training sessions are tough, with endless scrums, lineouts, mauls…
Durable is the word Mark Jones uses to describe him and it fits well. He thinks the reputation AWJ built early in his career around work-rate and energy has become a marker for him to be measured against every week. He’s still amongst the first in the line chasing kicks, he’s still hitting rucks, he’s still making important tackles and winning restarts; he’s set himself those markers and continues to hit them.
As Booth says: “It’s his ability to keep repeating efforts at a very high level. I asked Mike Catt for a definition of a world-class player once and he said it’s a player who never makes mistakes. People talk about high-profile moments but it’s about a high level of consistency.”
It’s about improving too. The hallmarks of his game remain but he’s bolted on new skills in recent years, whether that’s the offloads that Blyth highlights or the carries in the wide channels we’ve seen with Wales in the past couple of years.
There are others who have had similarly impressive and long-lasting careers. Brad Thorn won a World Cup with New Zealand aged 36 in 2011, Simon Shaw was turning out for Toulon in their 2013 European Cup-winning season at 39, Richie McCaw was just a couple of months shy of his 35th birthday when he lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time in 2015. What is clear, though, is that such feats of endurance do not happen by chance.
Jones applies the same diligence and discipline to his preparation away from training. Whether it’s nutrition, prehab, rehab… He puts in the effort to ensure he’s in the best shape physically and mentally. Even when he’s injured, he pushes himself to get back as quickly as possible – take the knee injury that was expected to keep him out of the start of this Six Nations but did no such thing.
“People say he’s a quick healer but he’s just a dedicated healer,” says Blyth. “You hear about him setting his alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to ice his knee. It’s those same characteristics – intensity, integrity, honesty, loyalty.”
Those characteristics have been evident throughout his career. He may be the sport’s most-capped player but he appreciates his privileged position, playing rugby as a living. He embraces the team-first philosophy and brushes off individual honours.
One thing that has stood out to Booth is how Jones has not only retained his enthusiasm but can engage with people old and young. “Infectious is a good word,” says the coach.
“A lot of elite sports people who’ve achieved a huge amount are very driven and can be a bit isolated or aloof because they’re so consumed by what they do and don’t have much time to enjoy their surroundings, to celebrate their surroundings. He’s the opposite of that. He’s caring and empathetic. It’s not about him, it’s never about him, and that’s great to see in someone who has achieved what he has in the game.”
How long can he keep going? That’s down to AWJ. Owens told Rugby World a few months ago: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Alun Wyn is still playing for Wales at 40 or something ridiculous.” Patchell says: “There’s not a much more brutal arena than the international game but for as long as Alun Wyn wants to carry on his body will follow his mind.”
On the evidence of the Six Nations, the desire and the drive are still there; he’s not surviving in Test rugby but thriving. Captaining the Lions on their tour to South Africa is next on the horizon, RWC 2023 may be another target.
Providing he’s meeting his own standards, he’ll be leading the way on the pitch. After that, who knows, but as Hore says: “I can guarantee he’ll be successful whatever he does. He’ll drive himself just as hard on the next path – the poor b*****d in the office with him!”
Regardless of what’s next, Alun Wyn Jones will forever be one of rugby’s icons. Humble is another descriptor that came up during these conversations but so did ‘special’ and ‘unique’.
Patchell sums it up well when saying: “I’ll be pleased when I’m an old hasbeen that I’ll be able to say I played in the same team as him. I think he’s one of those characters – he’ll hate me saying it – in that bracket of Francois Pienaar and Martin Johnson, those figures of the game. I don’t know if that’s what he aims to be, but that’s where he’ll finish up.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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