Welsh talisman Alun Wyn Jones takes the top spot in our list of the Top 100 Players in the World. Stephen Jones explains why...

The 100 Best Rugby Players In The World: 1 Alun Wyn Jones

1 Alun Wyn Jones

Age 33 (19 September 1985) Position Lock

One of the finest Grand Slams, and also one of the loudest and longest post-Slam celebrations. The Principality Stadium has become patchy in terms of unity and volume of support; there has been talk that the place has been infiltrated by eventers, scene-makers. There is nothing wrong with this – rugby cannot exist if only diehard rugby fans attend matches – but surely only the diehards could have produced the kind of thunderous intensity that enveloped proceedings after Wales won the third Grand Slam of the Warren Gatland era back in March.

And in the greatest of all team sports, surely no one objected for a second if one member of the Wales team was singled out post-match. ‘Green giants reduced to rubble by grand master Alun Wyn Jones,’ said The Sunday Times.

The tributes rumbled on, after Jones had played and led spectacularly. The great Jonathan Davies – the former not current star – proclaimed Alun Wyn was “the greatest-ever Welsh player”.

For anyone to be deemed greater than Gareth Edwards, Mervyn Davies, Barry John, Sam Warburton and Davies himself may be testing history to its breaking point, but it did seem justified.

There was an outside view as well. “Alun Wyn Jones is the best player that the northern hemisphere has produced in the 21st century,” said Will Greenwood in his newspaper column.

Taking It In: Jones enjoys the Grand Slam win with his daughter (Getty Images)

No one could take issue at the time and I suspect that few will take issue with our choice of Jones as No 1 in our 100 Best Players in the World Right Now. For me, that whole day and the celebrations that followed revealed the Welsh captain in an extraordinary light. Everything he did seemed to be touched either by playing excellence, by magnificent leadership, and by all the trappings of the Slam and the profile bestowed these days upon great players by the public and media.

There was the early lineout when the colossus called the ball to himself, setting up the position for the first Welsh try by Hadleigh Parkes. Then there was that chilling moment when he sank to the ground as if he had badly twisted a knee, and you could see his face screw up into a grimace of agony. For a while it seemed that the great talisman would be departing. Yet within minutes, he had run round the end of a lineout, taken the ball and smashed through four or five Irish tackles, biting off acres of territory. That run told Ireland all they didn’t want to know. And he had a towering game.

His influence went on and on. So much is made these days of contact between the captains and the referee. Many coaches spend ages trying to develop leaders in their team, so that the referee will respect and take on board what the captain is saying, whether in words or shrugs or blank stares.
Alun Wyn Jones proves conclusively that leaders are born, and that leadership skills cannot simply be adopted into the psyche like handling skills or goalkicking accuracy.

Wales won because they had leaders in key positions and a soaring supremo. As he loomed over the referees during the Six Nations and loomed over Angus Gardner in the climax against Ireland, it seemed that the two-referee system so often mooted in the sport had come into being. One was dressed in red.

The spotlight was still on Alun Wyn as the final whistle blew, as the post-match interviews were conducted – and there was no gibberish from the captain; it was as if he had prepared words in his head.

After the game he was snapped with his daughters. On the Monday the squad was given a reception at The Senedd, the Welsh Assembly building. The mantel of greatness had wrapped itself around the man with the trophy. It was a transcension of mere sporting fame.

Born Leader: Jones was colossal for the Welsh in the Six Nations (Getty Images)

And yet of all the images, probably the most striking was that which only a few opportunist amateur snappers captured about two hours after the match. Jones had done his celebrations and the lap of honour with the team and his media duties and taken part in the dressing-room bonding, then he walked back down the tunnel and simply sat alone in a seat close to the pitch.

No one bothered him. A few of the staff were still there, but even the army of security men had left. We watched him from the press box on the opposite side. We guessed that he had suddenly, in all the tumult, grasped that this was a moment of career history and before he was swept away in all the post-match rigmarole, he wanted to savour it so it was locked in his head for all time.

Next time he comes out to play for Wales, he will overtake Gethin Jenkins as the most-capped Welsh player. He is currently on 134, taking in Wales and Lions Test appearances, alongside Jenkins. If he stays fit, he could well play, say, two Welsh warm-up games and another handful in the Rugby World Cup itself.

He will be 34 at the end of the tournament, but never forget that is five years younger than Simon Shaw was when he retired. Neither Welsh nor Irish players play as many tough games on the spin as the English and so Alun Wyn may have a season or two on the clock before he retires, although I suppose the alternative would be to go out with Gatland, the two great men of the era in Welsh rugby departing together.

When Alun Wyn began his career, he moved between the blindside flank and the second row. He was heralded by Swansea and Ospreys coaches and followers. I remember writing, after what I considered to be a rather unremarkable series of performances, that I doubted if he would reach the very top echelon of international players.

Swansea Man: Jones has played over 200 games for the Ospreys (Getty Images)

So much for that opinion. He has been outstanding on three Lions tours and, alongside Maro Itoje in 2017 in New Zealand, he formed a remarkable locking partnership. Two intelligent men, two men for whom rugby life alone is not enough. One born in West Wales, the other in London of Nigerian parents, but a pair who gelled wonderfully together and, if anything, had the edge on the All Black pair of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in the Test series.

Test rugby in all its history, and in this era as much as any previous era, is an arena for experience, grizzled, grafted experience. That experience gives you motivation because you understand how failure feels. It allows you to take short cuts while the youngsters buzz all over the field. It gives you a gravitas and an aura about which opponents can fret. And it gives rugby a good name. But to have Alun Wyn Jones the character as an example of what rugby can become is better than any multi-million pound, prime-time advertising campaign.

His strengths are his lineout ability on his throw and the opposition throw; on his grasp of rugby, even though the view from the boilerhouse is sometimes obscured. His days in the back row made him an excellent handler of the ball, a fierce carrier. He is a tremendous scrummager. His power and wisdom in the contact areas are immense too.

Which have been his greatest combinations? The Jones-Itoje alliance in 2017 was memorable; so too the partnership he struck with Ian Evans when Wales hammered England in 2013.

But for me the best partnership in which he was ever a part was that with Luke Charteris. The massive Charteris could never shake off his sheer bad luck through injury, but at his very best he was one of the greatest locks I’ve seen and in the 2011 World Cup, the pair were dominant. It’s fair to say that Charteris will never be rated as highly as he should have been, and that Jones maximised himself. But what a pair.

Formidable Pair: Jones and Charteris were dominant when playing together (Getty Images)

Where does Jones stand in the pantheon? It is difficult to compare the modern-era locks with the likes of Colin Meads and Frik du Preez because in those days they were much smaller men, however fierce. But he certainly stands alongside the likes of John Eales, Martin Johnson, Paul O’Connell and the remarkable Shaw. I would place Jones and those four just one rung above Gordon Brown, Nathan Hines, Victor Matfield, Wade Dooley, Patricio Albacete and Whitelock. All greats, mind you.

Jones can add to that raw class an inspirational ability to lead and galvanise a team. You really do wish there was some mechanism by which these giants could lend all their experience to the administration of the game. So few truly great players can be bothered with the committee rooms. Frankly, the WRU should appoint him immediately to the board. He has too much knowledge for it to be allowed to drift away.

Our top 100 will cause controversy. It is meant to. We are not suggesting that our choices are laid down in tablets of stone. Everyone on rugby’s planet has the perfect right to their opinion.

However, should you disagree with our choice of top man, we would uphold our right to ask where you were on 16 March when Alun Wyn Jones picked Wales up in two hands and took them to the Grand Slam; and why you apparently missed the 133 Tests before that, played by the lock of locks

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