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The forgotten man

Jamie Lyall

Huw Jones’ odyssey in Scotland has felt like riding a bucking bronco, the centre clinging on with teeth clenched while being yanked from exaltation to despair.

Jones arrived in Glasgow three years ago, a Currie Cup champion, a try-scorer of note and a vital weapon in Scotland’s arsenal. He crossed the whitewash against New Zealand, Australia and France, and put in a howitzer performance in the Calcutta Cup scalping of England in 2018. But by the end of last year, he had tumbled out of the national team, been jettisoned from the World Cup squad, suffered injury, had his defensive game lacerated and bounced so far down Glasgow’s midfield pecking order that he had twice tried to leave. From a virtually indispensable Test machine, he was now Scottish rugby’s most expensive squad player.

Huw Jones’ odyssey in Scotland has felt like riding a bucking bronco, the centre clinging on with teeth clenched while being yanked from exaltation to despair.

Jones arrived in Glasgow three years ago, a Currie Cup champion, a try-scorer of note and a vital weapon in Scotland’s arsenal. He crossed the whitewash against New Zealand, Australia and France, and put in a howitzer performance in the Calcutta Cup scalping of England in 2018. But by the end of last year, he had tumbled out of the national team, been jettisoned from the World Cup squad, suffered injury, had his defensive game lacerated and bounced so far down Glasgow’s midfield pecking order that he had twice tried to leave. From a virtually indispensable Test machine, he was now Scottish rugby’s most expensive squad player.

The darkest times at Glasgow, he says, were addled by an unfair perception. Jones freely admits that it took him over a season to become truly comfortable in the Warriors jersey. But there was a damaging portrayal of him as a big-time Charlie, a rock star who only put on a show when the glamour names and bustling crowds were in town. The idle chat surmised that he didn’t look wounded enough not to be starting if Dave Rennie left him out. He didn’t seem to care sufficiently when the minnows were next on the calendar. Playing the Dragons in Newport? Facing Zebre at Scotstoun? Nay-sayers at Glasgow reckoned he thought those games were beneath him. 

“I’ve had a problem with it throughout my life,” Jones tells The XV. “I remember I played cricket for Kent Under-10s and I got dropped and my dad told me later that he had spoken to the coach and the coach had told him that I just didn’t look interested. I was gutted about being dropped.

I felt like I got a reputation in my first season that I didn’t really care.

“And it’s the same now, any time it happens, but I try and cover it up with this happy-go-lucky persona. Boys will come up to you and ask if you’re alright, and just to get on with the day and training you’ll say, ‘yeah, it’s alright’, because it’s not their fault. I don’t want to put my problems and start slagging off the coach to them, especially if they’ve just been picked. That to me doesn’t create a good culture. I’d rather let it go and get ready for training which is what I think the coaches want.

“I felt like I got a reputation in my first season that I didn’t really care. It started out with a joke from some of the players – ‘oh, he only plays internationals’ – but the coaches thought I didn’t really care about the small games. I have never felt that. I want to play every game.”

It is easy to look at Jones’ brilliance on the outside break, his rippling physique, perfectly coiffured hair and prolific Instagramming and fall into same trap as his Glasgow team-mates. It would be lazy and false to think him arrogant, or to reckon that his vivaciousness around Scotstoun makes him hurt any less when he isn’t picked. 

Huw Jones
Huw Jones still wants to make an impact at Glasgow Warriors (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

In reality, Jones is thoughtful and frank. The giggling veneer masks insecurity. Whenever he would try to meet Rennie, or talk to Gregor Townsend about his Scotland prospects, he melted into a quivering wreck.

“Last season I tried to get Dave for a chat – it wasn’t working, I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t sure what he wanted from me. Honestly, I’d be so stressed about it for days just trying to grab him. 

“Eventually we had a chat and I’d brought my notebook, I was sweating, I’d gone bright red. I just felt like I couldn’t get my point across because I was so nervous. I just never felt comfortable around him. But then I’d chat to other guys and they’d say he was the best coach they’d ever had. I never had that relationship with him. I got a better rapport with him as we developed and I felt I could chat to him openly this season.

I’d chat to other guys and they’d say he was the best coach they’d ever had. I never had that relationship with him.

Huw Jones on his strained relationship with former coach Dave Rennie

“We didn’t naturally have a good relationship; both sides have to work hard at it. I struggled a bit with Dave, Alex Dunbar probably did as well and a few of the other boys, but it’s quite a common thing, I think.”

It is fair to describe Jones’ bond with the recently departed Glasgow coach as strained. Arriving late from the South African season in 2017, the centre had scant face-to-face time with his new boss, little opportunity to get to know the rugged Kiwi on a deeper level than the training paddock would allow. Sam Johnson and Nick Grigg dominated the midfield berths.

Huw Jones
Huw Jones makes a break against South Africa (Photo by Ian Rutherford/PA Images via Getty Images)

“I barely spoke to Dave Rennie in my first season at Glasgow,” opined Jones. “We had one-to-ones with a coach every week to review a game – I didn’t have a single one with him the whole of my first season. It was only into the second season that I really spoke to him.

“During that pre-season I went to him and said I didn’t think I’d got enough help from the coaches. He admitted, ‘to be honest, I think you’re right and I’m going to make more of an effort to get to know you and work with you’. 

“That’s partly me as well as him. I wasn’t approaching him enough, taking my clips to him and asking questions.”

For the best part of the two years prior to the World Cup, I had been a massive part of the Scotland squad and central to a lot of our big wins. It still hurts now.

Huw Jones on his World Cup exclusion

After missing the bulk of the 2019 Six Nations with knee ligament damage, Jones knew the World Cup was a faint hope. He hadn’t done – or been given the chance to do – enough with Glasgow to force his case in a crowded centre field. Still, missing Japan was a crushing blow.

“I saw it coming but I was just as disappointed as if I hadn’t. For the best part of the two years prior to the World Cup, I had been a massive part of the Scotland squad and central to a lot of our big wins. It still hurts now.

“I took a couple of days to feel sorry for myself but I called Dave Rennie straight away to say I wanted to come back to training. I wanted to get in as soon as possible to solidify my place in the team because I was never first choice. I thought, look, I’ll get in early and try and be a leader.”

Yet as recently as December, Jones was hankering to leave Glasgow. He tried to engineer a loan move back to the Stormers but the Warriors would not let him go. He had come within a hair’s breadth of joining Leicester a year earlier. A contract was waiting for his autograph and the Tigers were drafting up a press release but Scott Johnson, Scotland’s former director of rugby, persuaded him to stay.

Huw Jones
Huw Jones crosses the whitewash against England (Photo by MB Media/Getty Images)

The Stormers idea was a plea for game time and a yearning to escape from the Scottish union bubble. His quest to cement himself in a starting position while the internationals were away had faltered.

“I told them, ‘look, I’m not enjoying it, I’m not playing. It’s been the same for the last two years. I’m earning quite a lot of money and it would be of benefit to you to have more cash available for someone you are not even playing anyway.’

“Their argument was they couldn’t spare me because if a centre got injured they would need me to step in, which was also a bit insulting because it really did show that I wasn’t first choice and not even close.”

These deliberations will crank up again soon with Jones entering the final year of his deal. He has felt invigorated by the early days of Danny Wilson and Glasgow’s new coaching team and the energy that laces their session. Wilson deployed him at full-back in the season-ending derbies with Edinburgh and Jones performed admirably.

At some point, though, he will have to make a call on his future. Recruitment budgets have taken a pasting during the pandemic, but there will still be clubs in England and France with an eye on how Jones is tracking. Another campaign on the periphery of a Glasgow squad will not suffice. 

I’d really love to experience the Top 14, I’ve always wanted to play there, and the Premiership, that would be cool, but with Scottish-capped players, it’s tough to go there unless you’re a big signing.

“This season is a big one; I’d like to see how the first couple of months go and then make a decision. If it’s going really well, I’m not against staying at Glasgow. I like the new coaches that have come in and I get on really well with them but I’d like to see how it goes and then make a decision based on that.

“I’d really love to experience the Top 14, I’ve always wanted to play there, and the Premiership, that would be cool, but with Scottish-capped players, it’s tough to go there unless you’re a big signing. I have a lot of work this season to get my value back up to where it was a season ago.

Thoughts of France have no business in the here and now, not with the onset of a new Pro14 season and a slew of Test matches in the autumn and spring.

Huw Jones
Huw Jones still has designs on a Scotland jersey (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group via Getty Images)

Jones has not progressed anywhere near as rapidly as he had hoped with Glasgow, but there is time yet to make a telling mark. 

“If I look back, I’m not where I would have wanted to be when I joined. I would have thought after three years I would have nailed down the position and have more caps for Scotland.

“Everyone gets injuries but when I’ve been fit, it’s been really frustrating that I have not played as much as I should or could have.

“There’s a big opportunity coming up with more Scotland games that you would get at this time of year. As the season gets going, I want to play as much and as well as I can to get back in contention for Scotland.”

Three trying years of glory and grief has come and gone but they will steel him for the monstrous season ahead.

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