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FEATURE How Scotland's 'Humble Huw' Jones confounded his critics and rose again

How Scotland's 'Humble Huw' Jones confounded his critics and rose again
4 months ago

Dillyn Leyds laughs at the memories of a halcyon time in his life, a young bachelor tearing it up for the Stormers, enjoying all the trappings of his beautiful Cape Town back yard, and sharing a house with a gallus Brit called Huw Jones.

Leyds, now a back-to-back European champion with La Rochelle, is a year older than Jones. The pair of them cracked Super Rugby around the same time in 2015; Leyds a local boy from the gritty Strand area, Jones unexpectedly turning his stint at the University of Cape Town into a burgeoning professional career.

The dashing centre fetched up from England to study and play some club rugby. Suddenly, he was a Stormer. His midfield colleagues were Springbok regulars Damian de Allende and Juan de Jongh. His first start in Super Rugby came opposite Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Meteoric doesn’t touch the sides. Jones had the looks and the swagger and the skillset and was not shy about tooting his own horn.

Huw Jones burst on to the professional rugby scene with Western Province in Cape Town (Photo by Luke Walker/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

“We used to call him ‘Humble Huw’,” Leyds chuckles. “The stuff he could come out with was absolutely ridiculous; the stories he’d tell, the things he’d say. He always backed himself to be the funniest dude around or the guy with the best chat.

“We had another guy live with us and Jonesy’s contribution to the house chores was zero. He didn’t have a driving licence so I would be his chauffeur driving him to training, or if he had to be somewhere else he’d say, ‘err, Dill…’. It was me or an Uber – mostly me.

“Every now and then we’d be on our way home after a game and he would say, ‘oh let’s go to the Slug and Lettuce’, which was our local bar. Before you know it a couple of other boys pull in, and Jonesy turns it into a one-man karaoke show singing Angels by Robbie Williams. I think he still does it to this day.”

He basically carried us during our 2017 Currie Cup win. He scored two tries and was man of the match in the final.

Recently ‘Humble Huw’ has been moonlighting on the wing for Glasgow and, true to the warm recollections of his old friend, calling himself ‘The White Lomu’.

But this apparent bravado has long masked insecurity and stoked an unfair sleight on Jones’ character. It’s dogged him all his days. He was once dropped from a Kent Under-10s cricket team because the coach felt he “just didn’t look interested”. Young Jones was crestfallen. “It’s the same now,” he told RugbyPass in 2020. “I try to cover it up with this happy-go-lucky persona.”

That damaging perception followed Jones to Glasgow in 2017. He endured a strained relationship with former Warriors coach Dave Rennie, whose thought process seemed to mirror the Kent cricket supremo’s fifteen years earlier. Jones dazzled for Scotland, his searing introduction to Test rugby continuing with two fabulous tries in the 2018 Calcutta Cup triumph, and electric finishes against most of the game’s global heavyweights.

But steadily, he fell out of favour at Glasgow and tumbled into the international wilderness. He got injured and couldn’t do enough to make the 2019 World Cup squad. He tried to leave Warriors twice and was persuaded – or instructed – to reconsider. Most painfully of all, he was thought careless and big-headed; a player with eyes only for the prestigious games; or, as they say in Scotland, too big for his breeks.

“That’s not Huw at all,” stresses Danny Wilson, who succeeded Rennie in the Scotstoun hotseat. “When we had injuries and a recruitment freeze during covid, I asked Huw about playing full-back. His answer was, ‘I don’t care where I play, I just want to be on the pitch’. That’s all you want to hear as a coach if you’ve got this awkward situation when you know a player needs exposure at 13 for his international career but you need him to play 15.

Jones won his first Scotland caps under Vern Cotter in 2016, and soon established himself as a front-line pick (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

“He wanted to be on the field, and his hunger and zest to do that was proved in how well he played at 15. He went to Harlequins and played some big games at 15 for them too. He could have said, ‘I only want to be considered as a 13’ – no chance, that wasn’t him.”

Leyds always knew Jones’ gregarious streak was underpinned by intense drive.

“He never took anything too seriously, but when it was time for the rugby, he was the man,” says the Springbok wing. “He basically carried us during our 2017 Currie Cup win. He scored two tries and was man of the match in the final. John Dobson was our coach and the culture he created – play hard and have a better time off the field – was just perfect for Jonesy.”

During the bleakest months, Jones saw his defence pilloried as well as his character. Scotland’s grim experiences in Japan forced Gregor Townsend to dismantle the ‘fastest-rugby-in-the-world’ blueprint and defensive genius Chris Harris owned the number 13 jersey to such an extent he became a Lion.

He does get caught in rabbit-in-headlights scenarios. I think his concentration drops.

Scott Hastings wore that same shirt when Scotland last won a Grand Slam 34 years ago. He racked up 65 caps at outside centre, a national record at the time of his retirement in 1997. The demands of the role are vast and Jones’ remit without the ball has been his biggest area for improvement.

“His defence is the question mark,” says the two-time Lion. “He does get caught in rabbit-in-headlights scenarios. The 13 position is damned difficult to play – you have players running and looping at you, you’ve got to make instantaneous decisions and you sometimes get the call wrong.

“I think his concentration drops. When Scotland got ripped open against Ireland at the World Cup there was hesitation in their defence. If there’s a chink of light someone exposes then that can grow to a chasm in international rugby because it’s a ruthless arena.”

When Steve Tandy took charge of Scotland’s defence, there was a marked upturn in Jones’ lust for tackling.

“He worked hard to really improve his defence,” says Wilson. “I remember he came on against Cardiff away in my first year, had to go on the wing because of injuries, made a brilliant defensive read, intercepted a pass and scored the winning try.

“He accepted he had some work-ons in defence. Steve Tandy was excellent for Huw – his detail, his drive to make the team and Huw better defenders. Chris Harris got a lot of opportunities because he’s outstanding defensively. Huw knew if he could get his defence up to the same level, it would make him a world-class player.”

Sione Tuipulotu and Finn Russell have been important foils for Jones at international level (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Eventually, Jones did leave Glasgow – if only briefly. He signed a pre-contract agreement with Bayonne but that was torn up when the French side were relegated. An invigorating year at Harlequins followed, and since returning to Glasgow some 18 months ago, he has never looked back.

Sione Tuipulotu has a lot to do with that. Jones’ muscular partner is an iron fist in a velvet glove, a rapier-sharp playmaker who can produce the brutal and the beautiful. Jones cuts defences like a laser beam, plotting his route with compass-like precision and steaming on to Tuipulotu’s passes. The chemistry is magnificent; as compelling as any Scottish midfield axis this millennium. Finn Russell – or Lionel Messi, to give the impish pivot his proper title – is the string-puller who knits it all together at Test level.

“Huw’s relationship with Tuipulotu at the moment is world class,” Leyds enthuses. “The two of them make things look so easy that you sit back and think, s**t, why can’t I do that?

“Huw is one of the best line runners in the game today. Where he comes from, his work off the ball and ability to see the picture before it’s happened, is amazing. He’s become a really good communicator and has the ability to organise people around him. That’s also helped his defence as well.

If I was to come up against Huw Jones, I’d be worried. He creates that doubt in you.

“If you’re a winger, you’d be hanging around him the whole time, hoping Huw comes your way with ball in hand. You’re anticipating a line break and hoping he gets scragged and offloads to you to score! You can see the Glasgow boys, they know when he’s got the ball you’ve always got to expect things will happen. And he’s quick, especially over the first 10 yards, a goose step and he’s away.”

That top-end gas gives Scotland a precious breaking option.

“If I was to come up against Huw Jones, I’d be worried,” Hastings goes on. “Some of the lines and angles he hits are utterly sublime. He has real pace and his ability to attack that wider channel can really help.

“He creates that doubt inside you. He has this lovely ability to veer towards contact and that step gets him out because he’s got the pace and can leave that run so late.”

After three matches freelancing out wide, Jones slipped into his favoured centre berth for the crunch Champions Cup visit of Toulon. The last Warriors match before Scotland’s Six Nations opener in Cardiff. Two tries, an assist, 70 running metres, four beaten defenders and a man of the match award later, Jones reminded us what talent he has, and what temperament to put on a show when the chips are really down.

Jones inspired Glasgow to a bonus-point victory over Toulon at Glasgow earlier this month (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

He also cast doubt over a swelling body of opinion which had Cam Redpath reprising his Bath synergy with Russell at the Principality, and Tuipulotu in Jones’ 13 slot. Townsend has some tasty calls to chew over and the selection of his midfield might be the most important.

“Huw was excellent against Toulon,” said the Scotland coach last week. “He’s been very good when he had to play on the wing. He defended well, chased kicks and did well when he had opportunities on the ball. But back at centre he showed what he can do with his running lines and rugby ability, also his understanding with Sione, who had a very good game too.”

Leyds offered counsel to his pal during the time in the doldrums. Jones spoke of his need for fresh stimuli, a new environment. He said the Harlequins move was a brilliant tonic but he was ready to go back to Scotland. And how he has emerged from the darkness.

“Huw had just lost a bit of enjoyment for the game,” Leyds says. “You go through that stage when things don’t work for you, things you used to be able to do just aren’t coming off.

“We joke about ‘Humble Huw’, but that’s the biggest test for any rugby player. If you look at him now, he has easily come through that period.”

Jones still backs himself, no question. It’s a vital part of his makeup, how he thrives in the pressure cooker. But with his return from an unhappy periphery to the heart of Scotland’s squad, those questioning ‘Humble Huw’s’ character have been silenced.

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