It’s the question no one wants the answer to – when will Alun Wyn Jones decide to unlace his size 15s for the last time? The talismanic lock has already played 134 times for Wales and nine times for the Lions in a position not known for slackers.
Dubbed the ‘engine room’, playing at lock requires hitting rucks, providing heft at scrum time, hard carries around the fringes, stretching every sinew in the air to reclaim balls off your fingertips and felling ball-carriers until your arms and shoulders are screaming for mercy. The Life of Riley it isn’t.
When Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys last week said Jones could reach the 2023 World Cup, he was probably thinking aloud. For factual reference, the big man from the Gower would turn 38 in France. Not that that grand old age is unprecedented.
Victor Matfield played in the 2015 World Cup at 38 – but he’d taken a full year off and finished with 127 caps. Simon Shaw played in his last Test at the 2011 World Cup at 37 but had only played a modest 73 times for England, while Brad Thorn was another to hit 36 but he played for the All Blacks a paltry 59 times.
If Alun Wyn plays ten games a year until France, he’ll be pushing in the region of 170 to 180 Test caps. Now that’s unprecedented!
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Wayne Pivac announces Wales’ 2020 Six Nations squad
If you add the 250-plus appearances he has already made for the Ospreys, he will comfortably pass 400 professional games in 2020. These sorts of giddy statistics make him look like he has the sort of genetics boasted by a member of the Marvel Comics family, not a mere mortal.
It could happen but the odds are stacked against it. Take Paul O’Connell. He looked indestructible up to the 2015 World Cup before a hamstring injury deprived him of his French swansong with Toulon and the further you get in advancing years, the higher the probability of being written off.
If Wayne Pivac and his Welsh management are doing a fine line in Plan Bs, they should be prepping for the future after the next Lions series. Jones will turn 36 by the 2021 autumn series and may have decided to take a deserved rest.
If that does transpire, Wales have a maximum of 17 games to decide on the person to take Wales forward. This year’s summer tour to New Zealand and Japan may provide a dry-run, depending on whether Jones and the Wales management decide the 12,000-mile trip is best for his longevity. A summer off would seem the sensible option.
There’s no doubt he is a force of nature and an inspirational leader. If you cast your mind back to August and the Wales vs Ireland pre-World Cup friendly, Josh Navidi captained Wales. Navidi is a fine player but on the day, the absence of Jones was keenly felt on the field. You could see it and you could feel it. Wales just didn’t look sum of their parts.
A three-tour Test Lion, Jones knits a Welsh side together like no one else in the modern era – and that includes Sam Warburton. He will soon pass Ryan Jones to sit second in leading Wales and you only had to witness the influence he exerted against Saracens on his recent return to Ospreys duty to see the galvanising effect he had.
Cajoling his pack in rolling mauls, politely questioning the referee on his decision making, he was at his cantankerous best and it should be said after 12 weeks out, he threw himself about with the abandon of an (oversized) spring foal. It was also Jones who expressed his dismay at the woeful season endured by Ospreys fans and players. There was no one else in Welsh rugby who could speak with such gravitas.
His fellow Osprey Justin Tipuric is another player to have worn the Wales armband in his absence, notably against Uruguay and the Barbarians. Tipuric is a players’ player; loyal, brave to a fault and so gifted he can play in the centre – as he did against Munster in this most dispiriting domestic season – but you sense he would not put himself forward to lead Wales on enthusiasm grounds, only a sense of duty.
A key part of the leadership group, yes, but not long-term ‘skips’. Taulupe Faletau is another individual of rare ability but he is not naturally gregarious and verbose. Sometimes in-game or in a changing room, someone of a vociferous nature is required.
Aaron Wainwright's reaction to the red card that helped swing momentum Wales' way in their win over Francehttps://t.co/oHJmAcyEIe
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 20, 2019
Someone who would be a natural fit is Ken Owens. He’s passionate, puts his body on the line and is a first-choice pick but at only 20 months younger than Jones, he could be a long-shot for France and that gives him longer odds. Another candidate is Ellis Jenkins. He has all the hallmarks for the role but is coming back from a 15-month injury lay-off and the hope is he returns to the sort of form he had pre-injury. He will need time.
This brings us to viable alternatives. It is unlikely that Wales would look to a full-back, as Scotland have with Stuart Hogg, and would look closer to the pack. For the reasons mentioned already, Dan Biggar and Hadleigh Parkes can be discounted on age-profile and therefore two men who could fit the bill are a duo from the unfancied Dragons.
Aaron Wainwright is only 22 – the same age as Sam Warburton when he took the captain’s armband – but he has similar traits. A back row, he has raw athletic ability, a clean-cut personality and is someone who leads by thought and deed. He’s also a slightly more gregarious character and looks to be a player who will be in and around the Wales set-up for the next decade.
The other player who could be an option for Wales is Alun Wyn’s partner, Cory Hill. You cannot underestimate how highly the previous Welsh management valued Hill having found space for him in the squad for Japan at the expense of Samson Lee and Rob Evans.
The word that kept cropping up in missives about Hill was ‘leadership’, an intangible yet precious commodity. Indeed, in a previous interview with Eddie Jones, we were once told that only Dylan Hartley and Owen Farrell had ‘natural’ leadership qualities in the England squad, but Hill has it in spades.
Of course, we’re told that ‘everyone is a leader now’ in controversy-free press conferences, but you need a frontman to deal with the media and essentially run a team from Thursday, which is what the erstwhile Jones expected Hartley to do when the Lion’s share of the training had been completed. It’s something Joe ‘Tinkerman’ Schmidt reputedly failed to do with Rory Best in Japan.
The England head coach says he has 'been doing his research' on Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac.https://t.co/33lEGU1yLQ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 20, 2020
Hill turns 28 during the tournament and has the age profile and personality to lead Wales effectively. Indeed his biggest hurdle is becoming a regular first-team starter, so the news he has been mooted as an option at blindside for certain games can be seen as a help or hindrance to that aim, depending on your point of view.
It bears repeating that Jones will be one of the few internationals who will go out on his own terms, but it would be remiss of Pivac not to start planning for a post-AWJ future however unpalatable that may be for rugby fans of a Welsh persuasion.
This will be his 15th year of Test rugby since taking his first tentative steps in 2006 in Argentina. If Jones hangs up his boots and retires the No4 shirt after next year’s Six Nations, it will mark the end of an era. In 14 months the idea he could to take his place among the Welsh greats is no longer fanciful.
The message is writ-large: cherish him while you can. Just don’t ask him when he’s retiring!
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