Doing what he does best - Stephen Jones

Ask Martyn Williams if he’s got any funny tales to tell about Stephen Jones and he chuckles in memory of one particular incident at the Millennium Stadium. It was back when Jones was Wales captain and was leading his team out to face Australia in 2006, only the sponsors had decided to make the players’ entrance more dramatic by putting a giant banner at the end of the tunnel for them to charge through. Jones, in the words of Williams, “had a bit of shocker”. Not only did he have trouble breaking the paper, he fumbled the ball as he punched his way through – hardly the powerful entrance expected.

Williams is also quick to question Jones’s fashion sense, saying: “He wore his WRU issue Ben Sherman shoes for six or seven years. They had a silver buckle on the front and he’d wear them with everything, even jeans. His dress sense has never been his strongest suit, although he has come on a bit since moving to the city.”

When it comes to Jones’s feats on the field, however, his long-time team-mate is glowing in his praise. There’s every chance the fly-half will become only the second person to win 100 caps for Wales on Saturday 4 June, when Warren Gatland’s side take on the Barbarians at the Millennium Stadium, and Williams would love to see him follow in Gareth Thomas’s footsteps.

“In my eyes no one deserves it more,” says Williams. “He’s been an absolute legend for Wales for 13 years. He made his debut in 1998 and has been the heart and soul of the squad since then. He always has a smile on his face and is the ultimate professional. He plays in the toughest position there is in Wales because everybody expects so much of the ten and he’s steered us to two Grand Slams. He’s a good mate so I’m biased, but I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Jones himself is playing down the prospect of becoming a Wales centurion. His rival at No 10, James Hook, will be otherwise engaged at his own wedding on the day of the Baa-Baas game, which has been made a capped International to mark the WRU’s 130th anniversary, so the path looks clear for Jones. Even if Gatland opts to blood a few younger players, the likes of Toby Faletau and Scott Andrews, he will want to have experienced heads around them – and Jones certainly fits that bill. But he has learnt over the years to take nothing for granted. “If it happens I’ll be delighted and it’ll be special, but it’s out of my control – that’s the way I look at it,” says Jones.

If he is picked to face the Baa-Baas alongside several youngsters he will be in a familiar position. The Scarlets have built their squad around a few old heads, like Jones, and home-grown talents – and after a couple of shaky seasons they have reaped the rewards. Last term they finished second from bottom in the Magners League and only qualified for the Heineken Cup by virtue of the Cardiff Blues’ Amlin Challenge Cup win, but in this campaign they have been in the play-off mix. Jones, for one, is delighted by the team’s progress.

“If you look at where we finished last year to this it’s been a big improvement. We’re ambitious and to be vying for a top-four place says a lot about this team. We’ve a relatively young squad and everybody has improved, we’ve changed our game plan and the coaching structure is very good. We’re developing as a side and that’s the best thing.

“A lot of young players have benefited from playing in the Magners League week in, week out last season. To see so many of them not just playing well for the region but breaking into the Welsh set-up and knocking on the international door is a big positive. They can take that international experience back to the regional environment and keep developing.”

Jones recognises the importance of developing his own game as well, especially after Hook seemed to sneak ahead in the race for the Wales No 10 shirt during the RBS 6 Nations and with the World Cup just a few months away.

“The outside-half position is very competitive so regionally you have to perform and you have to show what you can do,” he says. “The game changes and moves on every year, so I always look at how I can improve and evolve my game.

“I discuss lots of things with lots of people. You have to be open-minded about things if you’re looking to improve as a player so you take on board what people say. Even if you’re lucky enough to wear that national jersey you still go through that process, there’s still something you can work on to get better.”

The Wales squad have a busy summer ahead, with the Baa-Baas game followed by an intense pre-season and then World Cup warm-up Tests against England (twice) and Argentina – but Jones says the potential return is well worth the effort. “If you perform well and do your job, the reward will be being on that plane to New Zealand – what better incentive is there for a player?”

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

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