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The unsung hero

Owain Jones

The interior of Jake Ball’s house is stripped bare. There isn’t even a pew for the massive lock to sit in comfort, so he moves around with his unmistakable auburn beard intermittently catching fire in the sun.

Nine years ago, Ball pitched up in Llanelli with little more than a kit bag full of dreams. Born in Ascot, he had emigrated to Perth at 17 and showed promise as a cricketer, before throwing his lot in with rugby.

When a Welsh father, who hailed from Pwllheli, was unearthed, the Scarlets took a punt on him and in the intervening period, Ball filled his house with enough memories to keep freight companies in business as he relocates back Down Under.

He will take his enormous frame to Heathrow and depart not knowing when he will next return to a country that has taken him into their bosom.

The emotion has hit him in waves. He was just able to splurt out a few words of thanks at the end-of-season get-together, when Ken Owens presented him with a framed No4 shirt, and at his final training session – where he had been helping the Scarlets prepare for the now postponed Ulster game in the Rainbow Cup – there were fond farewells bade to a player who emptied himself for his region and country on 183 occasions. 

One of the more low-key players, you won’t find Ball rushing to his phone after an historic win, his spade-like hands will instead be clasping a beer. That’s just the way he likes it.

“It’s been a crazy ride,” he says, reflecting. “I know my family are very proud of me and what I’ve achieved. I know I’ve hardly been all over social media, but it’s just not me – I haven’t even got Instagram. If someone wants to write about me or say I’ve played well, then that takes care of itself. I’m hardly Joe Marler or James Haskell, I’m a bit of a blackout. With all the kids, I just don’t have the time.”

Jake Ball
Jake Ball rises into the skies to take the ball against France in the 2020 Six Nations (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

Ball has no need for apologies, and his achievements don’t need the help of influencers; he is Wales’ sixth most capped lock of all time behind Alun Wyn Jones, Gareth Llewellyn, Luke Charteris, Bradley Davies and Ian Gough. He is, and will always be, respected for giving 100 per cent on the field of play.

Reminiscing about his time with Wales and Scarlets, there are, of course the stellar memories that trip off the tongue. The golden fortnight in Dublin when Wayne Pivac’s side ran Leinster and Munster ragged in 2017 on the way to a Pro12 title, two World Cups, a Grand Slam and a Six Nations title, but it is the quirky memories that resonate. “I remember in 2013 a fan ran on the field against Harlequins and hugged me after Jordan Williams scored a great try, which was bizarre. Going out to Paris and beating a star-studded Racing 92 team was something else. At the end our travelling support jumped over the advertising hoardings and celebrated with us on the field. In the sheds afterwards, we looked each other in the eye and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. That to me is what rugby’s all about.”

In the red of Wales, it was the sheer wonder of running out in front of 74,500 fans that took the breath away. “There’s no feeling like it. You’re running out and thinking, wow, look at all these people. To have my friends and family there for my debut against Ireland in Dublin was a rare privilege,” he says. 

When my wife and I made the decision to move back [to Australia], I didn’t realise how much time I’d spend on my own. I’d find myself playing, coming home and using the family as an emotional crutch. It was quite lonely and I found myself overthinking things.

Jake Ball

Ball has found the pandemic trying, with its limits on sociability. A paid-up member of the old school, he believes that magical bonding process that takes place after whetting the whistle is integral to the game. “It’s been a strange time. We’ve missed crowds and it has affected us. The social element is massive for teams and tends to show on the field. It’s a good way of getting to know youngsters and new players coming in,” he says.

The Scarlets tight five have had to be resourceful and found an enclave from which to conduct its affairs. “There’s a group of us who use the kit room as our coffee room. We have a little tag on the door, saying ‘Boardroom’ for a bit of a laugh,” he says.

Ball says he will miss the entire squad but unsurprisingly, name-checks a clutch of forwards who share similar earthy ideals. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Ken (Owens), who has been a great mate over the years. I’m also close to Samson (Lee), who is a crazy character and a hell of a laugh. I’m used to seeing those two backsides at scrum time having my head stuck there all these years. Wyn (Jones) is also a good boy. We get in early because we like spending time together,” he says. “One of us will make a brew and we’ll put the world to rights before training.”

The reason for Ball’s departure, a month shy of his 30th birthday is personal. While in Wales, Ball and his wife, Christie had three kids (Amelia, six, Charlotte, four, Jackson, two), and a fourth, Max, was conceived there. For reasons he couldn’t have foreseen a year ago, he is yet to cradle him in his gargantuan arms.

“Max is coming up to six months and I haven’t met him yet. It’s been tough. When my wife and I made the decision to move back [to Australia], in September, I didn’t realise how much time I’d spend on my own. For the first three or four weeks, I’d find myself playing, coming home and using them as an emotional crutch. It was quite lonely and I found myself overthinking things. I was so used to being busy with the kids,” he says.

Jake Ball
Jake Ball catches his breath against Leicester Tigers in 2015 (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

During a global pandemic matters had come to a head for the young family. Action needed to be taken. “My main priority was Christie was safe and being looked after. With three young kids and heavily pregnant with a fourth, she needed help. With the Covid regs, she couldn’t have anyone in to help her and we didn’t have any family nearby to support us, so we had to put her and the kids first,” he says. “How she does it, I’m not quite sure, but I’m bracing myself for going back to Australia and looking after four kids. That beats 80 minutes in the engine room hands down.”

With the decision made, Ball had to inform to his coaches about his future plans, knowing it would likely end his international career. “I spoke to Wayne during the autumn campaign and I had to turn down a three-year deal that the union had put together. Believe me, it wasn’t a decision I took lightly,” he says.

Al thought it was me who had pulled down a maul down, when it was actually Rhys Carré who instigated the whole situation but he melted into the background. He threw a couple of punches and I threw a couple back. Luckily for me, a few more of mine landed.

Jake Ball

Looking fresh and game-ready, Ball says moving to the other side of the sporting world does not mean an end to his sporting aspirations. He is pointed when he says he’s not retiring. “There’s all sorts going on at the moment but nothing set in concrete,” he says. “I want to get back and speak to Christie to make sure it’s the right decision for the family. Thankfully there are no shortage of options to pick from.”

One visual reminder of the day job is apparent on our Zoom call. A heavily bruised nose, which brings a hearty laugh from Ball. “Earlier this week in training, we probably had one of the funniest lineouts I’ve ever seen. Four players were on their knees, holding their faces afterwards. It was a disaster. But don’t worry, I haven’t been fighting again,” he says with a smirk.

Mention of Ball’s pugilistic leanings are again met with a big smile. He hit the headlines in February when it was reported he had been involved in a contretemps with the world’s most capped player, and lest we forget, the Wales captain, Alun Wyn Jones, who sported a shiner at the Ireland game.

So what actually happened? “It’s one of those things, isn’t it? The biggest irony was that it was a case of mistaken identity at training. Al thought it was me who had pulled down a maul down, when it was actually Rhys Carré who instigated the whole situation but he melted into the background. He threw a couple of punches and I threw a couple back. Luckily for me, a few more of mine landed. That’s rugby. Me and Al spoke about it and we’ve moved on.”

Jake Ball
Jake Ball with his three children – he hasn’t seen his fourth, baby Max, yet (Photo by David Davies -via Getty Images)

Speaking to the affable, accommodating lock, the enforcer reputation he has built seems misplaced yet it was enhanced during the World Cup when he held arch-miscreant Faf de Klerk by the collars and grimaced. The insinuation was that, had the two men had been down a dark alley, De Klerk would not have emerged smiling.

In what was seen as revenge, during the Scarlets v Sale Sharks game last month, Ball, spotting De Klerk about to spring into action, belly flopped on the World Cup winner leaving him spreadeagled on the turf. In the ensuing days, social media was ablaze with – mostly South African – commentators calling for blood, conveniently forgetting Bakkies Botha and now Eben Etzebeth are hardly shrinking violets in the heat of battle.

“Faf is targeted. There’s no doubt about it. In a way, it’s a sign of respect. There’s a target on his back in every game because if you can unsettle him, it can benefit the team,” says Ball. He’s not the biggest fella but he’s hard as nails and puts himself about, I have the utmost respect for the guy. He’s a complete irritant, as frustrating as hell, like Cawdor (Gareth Davies) with us.” 

As for the social media mob with pitchforks at the ready, Ball is nonplussed: “The press reaction made me chuckle. Everyone can get it wrong on the field at sometimes. I think they took things a bit far, personally. I wasn’t trying to injure him. I’ve seen the ball come out and I’ve tried to go for the ball and hit him at the same time. You get a split-second to make these decisions. You react, and that’s rugby. If you take too long thinking, you’re usually too slow. The boys loved Ken reading the comments out in the ‘boardroom!’”

His decision to head back to Australia clearly had ramifications internationally. It poleaxed his aspirations of putting himself in the frame for the Lions and threatened him earning his 50th cap. Ball knew, and accepted, there would be consequences.

“We had a chat about the Lions when I made the call. Back in September I didn’t even know if the tour would go ahead. I understood it would affect my availability and I thought it might affect my selection for the Six Nations but I had to park it,” says Ball. “Fortunately, I did get picked and I got my 50th cap against Italy. Whether it affected my game time during the tournament, I’ll let others decide but that moment has passed and I have to live with it.”

That was Gats’ thing, you see. He wanted you to believe that you were almost superhuman. It was a mental thing and he took Wales to the cusp of two World Cup finals. We were so close in 2019 but I’m not going down that wormhole again, it’s a nightmare place to go.

Jake Ball

Ball is reticent about announcing his international retirement, but wherever he pitches up next, is thankful to all the coaches who shaped his career along the way and turned a raw 21-year-old into a Grand Slam winner. “There are a lot of people who have had a big influence on my time in Wales. In the early days, I had a lot of time for Danny Wilson. He was a very good forwards coach. Wayne (Pivac) was a good motivator. He knew how to get the best out of a team and would have little conversations with each of the players about what he wanted from them. Then Brad (Mooar) came in and was followed by Glenn, who brought their own style to buy into. I had a lot of time for Glax (Glenn Delaney). I can’t say too much but I was pretty gutted by the way he was let go, as were the players,” he says.

Someone who clearly had a huge impact on Ball at the very highest level was Warren Gatland, and the big Scarlet will be watching intently at the British & Irish Lions, including four of his team-mates, take on South Africa: “Gats has been great. He knows what he wants. He always has. What I’ll take away is his propensity for hard work. Take some of his World Cup camps, they were absolutely brutal. Some of the new boys in 2019 hadn’t experienced it but I knew what was coming. We had players puking and carrying on running, it was like the US Marine corps. That was Gats’ thing, you see. He wanted you to believe that you were almost superhuman. It was a mental thing and he took Wales to the cusp of two World Cup finals. We were so close in 2019 but I’m not going down that wormhole again, it’s a nightmare place to go.”

Jake Ball
Jake Ball trucks it up the middle against Bath in 2017 (Photo by Simon King – via Getty Images)

All these memories, good and bad, will be neatly wrapped up on the way to a new life, and whether it’s Australia, Japan or even New Zealand that sees the iconic beard next smashing a ruck, cleaning players out and making hard carries around the fringes of a driving maul, any coach will know they’ll get nothing less than a Herculean effort from Ball for the team.

He may not make too many highlights reels from his time in Wales, but every player who has played against him and alongside him knows his value.

With the arch of an eyebrow, it’s time to head off for some last-minute errands, his face littered with the scars of battle picked up in the game’s darkest recesses. “It’s not a glory role, but someone’s got to do it.”  

Selfless to the end. Pob lwc, Jake.

More stories from Owain Jones

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