By rights, Stephen Jones should have been sitting down for a quiet beer to watch his beloved Liverpool toil in Napoli on Tuesday night with fellow rugby dads, but instead he was furiously packing with his mind scrambling after being asked to step up to as Wales’ attack coach for the duration of the World Cup.
He will be whisked to the nearest airport on Wednesday, heading for Tokyo like a South American diplomat, sirens blazing. His task, to bring a joie de vivre and elan to Wales back play and bring home the Webb Ellis Cup. No biggie, then.
This surprising turn of events – to put it mildly – comes in the wake Rob Howley’s return home pending an investigation over a potential breach of World Rugby’s regulation six – in plain English, betting on rugby union.
Now, this is something of a curveball for a tight-knit coaching group that has been together through thick and thin for over 100 Tests.
They will have mixed emotions over Howley’s exit but short of coming across as a Welsh Comical Ali, as Wales’ World Cup planning goes up in flames, there are slithers of positive news over Jones’ arrival in Japan on Thursday…
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Familiarity with the players
When you have barely 72 hours before your first World Cup fixture and you have a crisis that sees your attack coach sent home in ignominy, the options are limited. To their credit, Martyn Phillips and Warren Gatland have acted decisively.
It helped that they had Jones, the Wales attack coach-in-waiting, on speed-dial, without having to mess around with expensive contractual shenanigans that could have held up a full-scale emergency. They didn’t have to scour the world looking for a blindingly brilliant, avant-garde southern hemisphere coach, who would be rapidly YouTubing the Wales backline.
Jones, of course, knows the players intimately, as players and, as importantly, people. He has been shoulder-to-shoulder with Wales’ talisman Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones in battle. He knows how to motivate them and how to get inside their minds.
Dan Biggar illustrates his professionalism in addressing the Rob Howley affair that has shaken Wales https://t.co/F4B63uOCyd
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 18, 2019
Remarkably, five out of the seven first-choice Welsh backs have been coached in some part by Jones. Only Dan Biggar and Josh Adams, who played for a season with Llanelli, and is a West Walian, has not been directly coached by the Carmarthen-born pivot but with a ton of caps as Wales’ on-field general, he’s very much in the same vein as Biggar, so you’d imagine their playing philosophies chime.
Another hugely influential and experienced back, Leigh Halfpenny, is also familiar with his way of working. This familiarity can only help when time is of the essence.
The missing attacking link
There’s no doubt Rob Howley has been a sterling servant to Wales and a loyal deputy to Warren Gatland, but it would be daft to suggest Wales’ attacking style has not missed an X-Factor during his tenure. As Gerald Davies romantically put it, there is a ‘Welsh Way’ of playing, more about evasion rather than contact, beauty over brawn.
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Now, RugbyPass is not suggesting Jones is the modern-day Carwyn James, that evangelist of attacking play, but with the Scarlets, Jones implemented some of the most aesthetically pleasing back play seen by a Welsh region as the West Walians weaved intricate patterns, offloaded with dexterity and stormed to the Champions Cup semi-final in 2018 and saw off Munster and Leinster teams packed with Ireland internationals on the way to a 2017 PRO12 final win in Dublin.
Whether he is watching his son play at under-sevens level in Llandaff, or dissecting how to break down international defences, those who know Jones all attest that he doesn’t stop thinking about rugby. This infectious enthusiasm is bound to wear off. Gatland was fairly open in saying he expected Jones to add his own ethos to a Wales backline, not to stick rigidly to Howley’s playbook.
While you won’t expect to see Wales playing like the Harlem Globetrotters, some Jones hallmarks may start to bear fruit sooner than later. You have to remember, Jones has been a shoo-in for the job for nearly a year, and the chance to hone Wales’ attacking shape will have sent him off to sleep regularly with a smile on his face.
— Welsh Rugby Union ? (@WelshRugbyUnion) September 16, 2019
There are few prouder Welshmen than Jones, who went on two Lions tours and won two Grand Slams, one under Gatland. Jones finished his celebrated career out in New Zealand in 2011 on a third World Cup campaign and he was integral to steering a fresh-faced squad to the semi-final where they came up agonisingly short against France.
The majority of that squad have talked about a missed opportunity and Jones would like nothing better than the chance to atone for that disappointment. Jones can use every motivational tool in the book to inspire his backline because he has been there.
He understands intimately what the players are going through having experienced every peak and trough in a Wales World Cup shirt. He will still bear the scars of Nantes in 2007 and will relish pitting his wits against Fiji.
It's awkward for Warren Gatland after the sudden exit of Rob Howley from the Wales set-uphttps://t.co/IKMB6wRce7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 18, 2019
A galvanising effect
It was instructive that Gatland, a man who picked Jones for 41 of his 104 caps, said he conferred with senior players before making the decision to contact Jones. It wasn’t a case of Better Call Saul, more Better Call Steve.
Gatland is at a stage in his Welsh coaching cycle that trust is absolute and you would have thought that Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, George North, Biggar and Halfpenny were all sought for counsel. That must have been soothing for Gatland on a birthday he will never forget.
In their long history, Welsh rugby is used to unexpected bombshells. It’s in their DNA. When Mike Ruddock was given the heave-ho during the 2006 Six Nations after internal strife Wales still managed to beat Scotland while all hell was breaking loose, while in 2015, with the players dropping like flies, they managed to beat England with Lloyd Williams on the wing.
Earlier this year, the squad was rocked by Project Reset, which threatened to amalgamate the Scarlets and the Ospreys and put a glut of the players out of work, but they rallied to win a Grand Slam. They shine in adversity. An already tight squad will be even tighter.
It’s early days, but Wales can come through this.
WATCH: The RugbyPass stadium guide to Toyota where Wales will open their World Cup campaign versus Georgia
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