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AWJ doesn't need cotton wooling

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Alun Wyn Jones doesn't need any cotton wool

On a typically grey October day in 2015, Alun Wyn Jones sat chatting to media gathered at a plush Surrey hotel. Approaching his 100th Test appearance, he was asked what it would mean to reach the landmark in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final against South Africa.

“There is always the thought in the back of your mind that every match could be your last,” he told reporters then. “That’s what I like to go on and I don’t look at any numbers.”

He added an inference that, with that figure including six appearances for the British and Irish Lions, it would represent a bigger personal achievement to compile a century of caps for Wales outright.

Jones is not a man who basks in his own glory.

Subsequent milestones – he won his 100th Wales cap against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2016 and captained his country to a first November clean sweep with victory over South Africa in his 120th – have in turn each been treated as “just another game”.

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It is no surprise, therefore, that he let others do the talking as he set a new Ospreys appearance record, playing a pivotal role as Zebre were beaten 43-0 in what was his 233rd game for the region.

Jones was described as a “true Ospreys legend” by managing director Andrew Millward in the build-up to Friday night’s PRO14 clash and he lived up to that billing with an all-action performance.

Watching the evergreen second-row in action at present, it is easy to forget that he is 33.

Jones seemed to be everywhere against Zebre at the Liberty Stadium, putting his body on the line to help force turnovers, offering a reliable target at the lineout, linking attacks in open play, carrying the ball into crowded channels and, of course, shooting the breeze with referee JD Cwengile.

Wyn Jones screams his delight at a Welsh turnover (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

His experience in that last area is invaluable for both Wales and the Ospreys. He knows exactly how to talk to officials, offering his opinion without ever seeming to overstep the line.

A case in point came early against Zebre in Swansea.

Following a fracas with the visitors’ openside, Johan Meyer, the pair were called over by Cwengile. While the Italian international struggled to look innocent, Jones addressed the referee in a stance, arms behind his back, that was almost intimidatingly polite.

It is an approach that has been honed over the course of a 13-year professional career, and such skills of diplomacy are priceless in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the Six Nations and World Cups. It is not hyperbole to suggest that his captain is the player Warren Gatland can least afford to lose ahead of Japan 2019.

In Cardiff last weekend, during the post-match de-brief that followed Wales’ 20-11 defeat of South Africa, Gatland jokingly asked Jones whether this would be his last autumn in a red shirt.

That quip followed another modest answer about the emotion of his 120th cap. But if there is a subject Jones likes talking about less than his own achievements, it is his future.

It remains to be seen whether Gatland’s countryman and successor as Wales coach, Wayne Pivac, can convince the Ospreys lock to stay on post-Japan but if he can maintain his current form then he can be expected to try his damnedest.

The Wales skipper has played eight matches for club and country this season, all of them 80-minute affairs, all of them totally committed. If there was a Lions tour next summer, he would be on the plane.

Alun Wyn with his men in Dublin (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Jones came up with big plays when it mattered for Wales in their November wins over Australia and South Africa, outplaying and outthinking much younger internationals.

Prior to the last World Cup, he had played Australia, New Zealand and South Africa 36 times with Wales and the Lions, winning just five matches. In the three years since, he has registered five victories in just 12 meetings with the ‘big three’.

Jones credits fatherhood, age and experience for his continued impressive form and the former has certainly been on display on the pitch of late as he has helped Adam Beard to fulfill his potential.

Beard emerged as a genuine contender for a World Cup place in November, and Gatland will hope that he is soaking up all the wisdom his club-mate can impart. The Six Nations could provide the acid test for that partnership at Test level.

Japan is still the best part of 10 months away but don’t expect Jones, a man once described as a “machine” by his former Wales and Ospreys colleague Richard Hibbard, to ask to be wrapped up in cotton wool.

He is a man who demands the best of himself and his team-mates, and if his workload is managed correctly there seems little reason why he cannot continue at the top level for a few more years yet.

Just don’t ask him what it would feel like to go on a fourth Lions tour. It’s “just another game” after all.

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Alun Wyn Jones doesn't need any cotton wool