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FEATURE Wyn Jones: 'I feel fitter now than at any time since the Lions tour.'

Wyn Jones: 'I feel fitter now than at any time since the Lions tour.'
2 months ago

A rugby supporter deposited on Mars for the past three or so years might return home with a number of questions, among them a searching query or two about the progress of Wyn Jones.

That would be the same Wyn Jones who made it into the Lions Test side in South Africa.

The very same man who, immediately after the trip concluded, was priced at just 8/1 by some bookmakers to lead the best of British and Irish rugby on their tour to Australia in 2025.

As the west Walian’s annus mirabilis of 2021 drew to a close, just three other male European props, among them Tadhg Furlong and Cyril Baille, featured higher than him on the Rugby World magazine’s annual list of the hundred best players on the planet.

“Is Wyn still in the hunt to skipper the Lions?” our space-travelling friend might wonder after coming back from his interplanetary trek. “What was it like when he won his 50th Wales cap? Has he been named Welsh player of the year yet?”

Possibly, surprise might greet the news that the loosehead is still two caps shy of his half-century of games with Wales, and, no, he still hasn’t been feted as Welsh player of the year. Also, he isn’t listed among the Lions captaincy contenders these days.

Wyn Jones
In a disappointing season, a raft of stalwarts are leaving the Scarlets, including Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, who is retiring (Photo Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

But then these are days of flux for the likeable farmer from Llandovery. Welsh rugby is facing huge financial challenges and last week Jones featured on a list of players leaving the Scarlets at the end of the season, having appeared in the starting line-up just four times this term. He hasn’t figured for Wales for more than a year and played his final home game for the Scarlets last weekend, operating off the bench against Ulster.

What to make of it all?

Jones’s Twitter page is embellished by an image of him about to fire a shotgun. Who or what did he have in his sights at the time? A mischievous sort or two might have concluded those who pick the side at the Scarlets might have been candidates to be on the receiving end. But perhaps it’s best not to go there.

The campaign, though, has been tough for the 32-year-old.

“I’d call it frustrating,” he says, “because I feel fitter now, body-wise, than I’ve felt at any time since the Lions tour.

Can I explain it? I guess it’s about opinion. You accept it as a player, but of course you want to start and contribute as much as you can

“I came back with an AC injury, which I should have had operated on, but I kept playing, then I injured my knee. I also had a back problem, albeit the AC issue was worse. So I’ve had more than my fair share of bumps but that’s the way it goes sometimes in rugby.

“I’ve been fully fit of late, with my body feeling really good, but I just haven’t had the game-time that I needed.

“Can I explain it? I guess it’s about opinion. You accept it as a player, but of course you want to start and contribute as much as you can.”

The evidence of his 25-minute outing as a replacement against Ulster last time out suggested Jones still has plenty to offer, with the 6ft 1in, 17st 13lb scrum technician skewering the opposition set-piece at one point and also helping to barrel the young No. 8 Carwyn Tuipulotu over for a try. And among his carries, there was one particularly purposeful effort that saw Jones snort his way forward like an angry bull. Throw in five tackles without a miss and his impact was significant.   

Wyn Jones
Jones has won 48 caps and at 32, would dearly love to reach the half century (Photo ANDY BUCHANAN/Getty Images)

Afterwards, plenty wished him a fond farewell as spectators mixed with players on the Parc y Scarlets pitch. “The supporters have been really good over the years,” he says. “Some of the messages I’ve received since announcing I was leaving have been outstanding and it was nice that people said nice things on the pitch after the Ulster game. I’ve made a lot of friends and I’d like to think those are people who’d be friends should I bump into them later on in life.

“When you were a young boy in school, you always dreamed of playing for Llanelli, as they were then, and afterwards when they became the Scarlets. They were the big side in the area. I wanted to play for Llandovery if I could and, of course, every schoolboy rugby player wants to play for Wales. I’m just really pleased to have ticked all three of those boxes.

“I’ve enjoyed it at the Scarlets. Whenever I’m talking to kids or whatever, I say the key thing is to like what you are doing and who you are playing alongside. I still carry that way of thinking with me today. I like going to work every day. I’ve always said, the day I don’t enjoy it will be the day I hang my boots up.

I was a late bloomer, because I wanted to go to university and get a degree before committing everything to rugby, because you never know how long rugby will last.

“We’ve had some really good times. I was injured when we went on the European cup run and beat La Rochelle in the quarter-finals in 2018, but it was great for the club and the boys and you still remember those days when the stadium was full and we were playing so well. Those are the days you want as a player.

“I was a late bloomer, because I wanted to go to university and get a degree before committing everything to rugby, because you never know how long rugby will last. At that stage, I never dreamed I would play for Wales. It was about trying to set my future up before throwing everything at rugby.”

Jones continues: “We still have a couple of games left this season, so I’m not done with the club yet. I thought it went OK from a personal point of view last weekend. We had only one scrum when I was on, but their tight-head went up in the air. They weren’t great at scrum-time, so it would have been nice to have had a bit more time on the field, to try to make an impact from the start and perhaps have more of an effect on the game.

Wyn Jones
Only three years ago, Wyn Jones was turning out for the British & Irish Lions (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

“When I did start against Connacht, I thought I went quite well. I think I had three or four jackal turnovers, which probably kept us in the game a bit, but I didn’t start in the next match. You want momentum as a player, to keep playing, but it just hasn’t been there for me this year.”

Now, a significant decision on his future beckons. The agriculture and animal science graduate has long been active on the 400-acre family farm in Llandovery, living next door to the main farm and working hand-in-hand with his parents and being able to combine that role with his job as a rugby player.   

Moving away would change all that, disrupting what Jones has known for so long, but he isn’t ruling anything out. “There are a few irons in the fire,” he says, “but I’m in no rush to sign, as I want to make sure the move is the right one. It’s about assessing what’s on the table and making the correct  decision.

“At home, there’s the farm and my missus is an estate agent. There are a couple of other things it’s nice to be home for. The other side of the coin is that heading away would bring a life experience, which we might want to sample. I’m not really playing for the money at this stage. More important is that I am in the right place and I enjoy it. Would I go to France? It’s something I’d consider, yes, for the life experience. Tomas Francis is out in Provence and loving it, while George North is going there, too. It’s about finding something where you feel you could challenge yourself, add value and do well for the team. Playing at a good level is important to me.”

While I’m playing, I’ll have ambitions to play for Wales. I always said when I didn’t have those aspirations, I would retire.

He doesn’t dismiss the idea of staying in Wales, though, and given the scrummaging problems some of the Welsh professional teams have endured this term it would be a surprise if there were no interest on that front. “I have an open mind,” he says. “To be honest, all the regions are pretty much a similar distance from me. I could still live at home in Llandovery if I went to another region, which would be something to think about if an offer came in.”

Let’s switch to the Test scene. Is there still time for Jones to make it back into the Wales picture? There should be. The cliché says props mature with age, and the cliché is right. Dan Cole started four games for England at the World Cup this term at the age of 36, while a 37-year-old WP Nel figured four times for Scotland in the same tournament. 

Whatever, Jones is up for the challenge. “While I’m playing, I’ll have ambitions to play for Wales,” he says.  “I always said when I didn’t have those aspirations, I would retire. If I look back 18 months ago, when I was going through knee problems and AC issues, I did sit down and think: ‘Is my body giving up on me? Am I done?’

Wyn Jones
Wyn Jones had some magical times with the Scarlets and has no regrets (Photo Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“But over the past eight to 10 months I’ve felt really good. I’ve had that edge back and I really want to play.

“I’d like to think I’d make it through to the next World Cup. That’s an aim of mine. I want to play for two or three years. If I’m playing well enough, I’d like to be in with a shot; if not, so be it. But I’ll definitely give it my all and, hopefully, I’ll get back in there.”

Jones’ old team boss at Llandovery, Euros Evans, is in no doubt his former charge can keep going for a while yet.

“Thirty-two for a prop isn’t old at all,” says Evans, the Drovers’ director of rugby, who has just led his team to a league and cup double. “If you look after yourself, you can go on until 35 or 36 without any problems. Also, Wyn came into pro rugby later than a lot of others, so he hasn’t been battered from the age of 18 or 19. He played for Ammanford and then us, and also went to college, not breaking into the pro game until his early to mid-20s. From that perspective, he still has plenty of miles in him. As long as the appetite is there, he can go for a good few years yet.”

Evans knew Jones was ready to step up from Llandovery to the Scarlets a decade ago after a series of dominant displays. “I remember one game at Ebbw Vale when he defended their driving lineout virtually on his own,” says the former hooker. “He was superb. He could scrummage, but he was also a powerful carrier and very good over the ball. It wasn’t hard to predict he’d do well.”

But no career is a straight line, and always the challenge is to keep going. That is what Jones intends to do.

It’s not inconceivable Warren Gatland will look his way again. If he does, the certainty is the farmer from west Wales won’t let him down.

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