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Under the radar

Owain Jones

Exclusive free article from The XV

Some Welsh players have courted the limelight after shining for Wales. Gavin Henson famously met Charlotte Church in a city centre steakhouse after the Wales v England match in 2005. The bright lights and clubs of Cardiff are metaphorically at half-mast right now during the national lockdown but one player who is unlikely to be found driving golf carts down the M4 or wrestling bouncers under the gaze of snappers at kicking-out time is Wyn Jones.

The Wales loosehead is the last person you’d expect to see on the red carpet, launching a podcast, clothing range or coffee shop. No, when Jones puts in another sterling job at the coalface, attacking the opposition tighthead, making thunderous short carries and jackaling, he’ll routinely jump in the 4×4 and head west towards Llandovery, before snaking towards to the family farm near Cilycwm, a small hamlet of few hundred people. 

Here the Neuadd Arms bar will be a more likely host for this international prop’s elbow after a tough day at the office than throwing shapes in Studio 54.

If Jones wants to disappear from the public gaze completely and not see a soul, he can hop on the quad-bike and climb to the top of the Towy Valley where he can see for miles to take stock of his game. That’s just how he likes it.

Jones is an unheralded cornerstone of the Welsh pack. With 32-caps, he has a scintilla of the profile of ‘King’ Louis Rees-Zammit, Wales’ new poster-boy, but in turning out highly consistent, eye-catching performances, his cloak of anonymity is slipping.

Wyn Jones
Wyn Jones takes Charles Ollivon on against France (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

One man who knows Jones better than most is Emyr Phillips, his forwards coach at the Scarlets. The two often packed down at Llandovery with Pete ‘The Meat’ Edwards, and it’s there that Jones learnt the dark arts of front-row play away from the scrutiny of the regional game. Phillips is also from a farming lineage, so understands the loosehead’s psyche.

“I still don’t think he realises how good a player he is”, says Phillips, on his drive back from training. “He’s the sort of player than once he has four or five performances, you don’t want to leave him out. He values the scrum, the contact area and everything he does above that is a bonus. It’s only when he’s injured that you realise how much he brings to the team. He’s been exceptional for Wales in this Six Nations.”

I remember playing against Tomas Francis for Doncaster nine years ago in the British & Irish Cup. Back then we didn’t know that we’d be packing down together for Wales but Franny is probably similar to me. He’s come the old school way of the Championship.

Wyn Jones

Phillips has been especially pleased to see Jones flying the flag for the Welsh Premiership, having taken the circuitous route to the pinnacle of the rugby pyramid. “His Uni days helped him put a bit of weight, probably from drinking beer in the pubs”, he jokes. “He does like to enjoy himself, he’s not a puritan but I still think he’s got the balance just right. He has those old-school propping values and knows when to switch it on and switch it off.”

That opportunity to learn his trade at Llandovery, in the Welsh Premiership, has been integral to Jones’ development and speaking to him at Wales’ training base in the Vale of Glamorgan, the journey he’s been on is not lost on the unassuming No 1.

“Funnily enough, I remember playing against Tomas Francis for Doncaster nine years ago in the British & Irish Cup. Back then we didn’t know that we’d be packing down together for Wales but Franny is probably similar to me. He’s come the old school way of the Championship. We still talk about the good times, the good people we met. You get to know the ins and outs of different props and learn your trade there. In some of these Cup games, you haven’t got three officials, so you get a few cheap shots but it helps you grow as a person.”

As for the current mood in the camp, and his rapidly increasing profile, Jones prefers to play a straight bat. “Yes, I’ve had a good run lately. After the Nations Cup, we went back to the club and had a few games but I got concussed which was probably a blessing in disguise. It gave me two weeks off to freshen the body up and hit the ground running in the Six Nations. It’s all coming together. We’ve got a lot to work on, but having won the first two games, it’s a happier place to be.”

Someone who has been watching Jones’ development very closely is Paul James, the former Wales loosehead, who won 66-caps for his country and is now coaching at the Ospreys Academy and the Wales U20s.

Paul James
Paul James appreciates how Wyn Jones attacks at scrum time (MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images)

“Wyn’s had a run of games and has been outstanding on the international stage,” says, James. “As an ex-prop I always look at the scrummaging and he’s looking very strong on that front. He has good body shape for a prop and keeps himself in a very strong position to keep the referee on side. What I like about him is that he tries to attack on every scrum. You get a lot of props who just sit there, it’s ball in, ball out but he’s an attacking loosehead and thrives on it.”

Turning 29 the day before the England game, Jones has been a relatively late starter. With Rob Evans and Nicky Smith dominating the No 1 shirt on Gethin Jenkins’ retirement, Jones packed down at the ‘Drovers, while others bathed in the spotlight. It begs the questions, with the pressures of farm life, did Jones ever consider hanging up his boots?

He has a bit of a diesel engine on him so he’ll go all day but he’ll always give you a platform. If the bare minimum is parity, a few jackals, 10-15 tackles and a few carries, it’s a good benchmark.

Emyr Phillips

“Not really. From the age of seven, I always enjoyed playing and the culture around it. I’ve always said, if I hadn’t played professionally, I’d have probably played for Llandovery Seconds. Fortunately, I was able to play at semi-pro and get my studies done at Aberystwyth University. To this day, I’m quite proud of myself for finishing my degree there before stepping into rugby because you never know how long it will last.”

Phillips says Jones’ value to a pack comes primarily from his mastering of the basics. “He has a bit of a diesel engine on him so he’ll go all day but he’ll always give you a platform. If the bare minimum is parity, a few jackals, 10-15 tackles and a few carries, it’s a good benchmark. It’s funny, because I wouldn’t call him a natural sportsman; he’s terrible at pool, not the best footballer and an average darts player but rugby-wise, you see the passes out of the back, the support play, he’s got it all.”

James has been increasingly impressed with Jones’ fundamentals. “He looks like the complete player, doesn’t he? He’s doing a few jackals, he’s dominant in the collisions and breakdowns and he can pass the ball as well. If you’re a prop who can only scrummage, fine, it’s horses for courses, but on the international stage, you need an all-round game, and Wyn has it.”

Wyn Jones James Davies
Wyn Jones and James Davies celebrate a win against Bath (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

As for the newfound attention coming his way, Jones just paws it away. “I just enjoy the rugby and try to black everything else out. It’s nice when you get messages of well done, or good luck, it shows you you’re doing something right but I’ll just ride the wave and work hard. It’s a very competitive squad and if you’re not at your best, you won’t be playing. Simple as that.”

Phillips says work on the land at the family farm is probably the best preparation for the rigours of the front-row. “He gets stuck in with the shearing and it might sound stupid but that physical background has held him in good stead. His farm is hilly so his legs are massive from all that walking. He had natural strength from a young age and now he’s in a full-time environment, he has no weaknesses gym-wise. He knows his body and can go 60-70 minutes. At scrum-time, he’s unbelievably flexible at that pre-engage position. When he’s in that fight, it’s the mental strength that allows him to stay in there. He very rarely cracks first. If you don’t have that resilience you’re not going to make it at a professional level.” 

Geth is the best ever loosehead to play for Wales. I watched him a lot growing up and he’s been there and done it. To have him on the coaching team is massive for us props. He knows what it’s like and has a bit of empathy for us.

Wyn Jones

As Phillips says, with nearly 100 appearances for Llandovery, Jones hit hundreds of scrums before turning pro and unlike many academy graduates who come into the pro environment only to be schooled by older, wiser props, he’d experienced all that already. “When Wyn was young, I stepped down from the Scarlets and remember myself, Wyn and Pete the Meat would play for Llandovery. He had a tough couple of afternoons when he was a lot lighter and his technique wasn’t as refined so those learning in those environments have helped him come through.”

Someone with nous and wisdom in spades, and someone Jones looks up to is Wales’ new defence coach, Jenkins, who is passing on 134-caps of experience on a daily basis. “Geth is the best loosehead ever to play for Wales. I watched him a lot growing up and he’s been there and done it. To have him on the coaching team is massive for us looseheads. He knows what it’s like and has a bit of empathy for us. He’s been very positive since he came in and has been very good technically for us front-rows.”

In the pressure-cooker environment of a Covid-bubble, those calm old heads are needed more than ever with the squad together for seven weeks, away from their families and creature comforts. “It’s quite tough at times when you think about your family and you’re unable to see them but we are very fortunate that we’ve got a good bunch of boys and staff. There are a few jokers around and it’s a fun place to be. We have an entertainments committee, which keeps smiles on faces.”

Emyr Phllips
Emyr Phillips was a long-term servant for the Scarlets (Photo by Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images)

Away from the pitch, Phillips says Jones’ settled home life has helped with his stability on the field, even though Wyn and his partner Jeian had to postpone their wedding last summer. “During lockdown he did up the house up on the farm. Everything has come together quite nicely and you can see on the pitch how settled he is off the pitch. It allows him just to concentrate on his rugby. Whenever he gets a day off, or a weekend off, he’s happy doing a few jobs on the farm or going into Llandovery and having a few beers with close friends and family.”

I suppose you could class Wyn as a fine wine coming into vintage. He seems to have cemented his place in the side and good times are ahead for him. Can he play for the Lions? I see no reason why not.

Paul James

As for the growing calls for his involvement in the Lions squad, Phillips is not one to dampen the swell of support surrounding his former team-mate. “Even before the Six Nations, his name was being bandied about but now, he’s really starting to slam the nail home. If he carries on as he’s going, it’s going to be pretty hard to ignore him. Gats (Warren Gatland) was happy to take two looseheads to the World Cup, and he played a lot of rugby out in Japan. He obviously has a lot of trust in him because he delivered. His performances are doing the talking for him because Wyn isn’t the type to be pushing his name.”

James is another who is impressed with the way Jones goes about his business. “He keeps himself to himself. He doesn’t chuck himself all over social media and that’s what I like about him. He does his talking on the field. I suppose you could class Wyn as a fine wine coming into vintage. He seems to have cemented his place in the Welsh side and good times are ahead. Can he play for the Lions? I see no reason why not.”

The endorsements are coming thick and fast for Jones, and with Mako Vunipola and Ellis Genge next on the horizon, we’ll soon see whether the greatest honour in rugby is to be bestowed on him.

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