Adam Jones: 'The backs? They're all fake tan and shaved legs'
The Brian Viner Interview: Larger-than-life Wales prop explains why he's not too big to cry, why he bears no grudge against Bakkies Botha for ending his Lions tour, and why Wales will be just fine in the Six Nations without Gavin Henson
Friday 29 January 2010
It is some time since Adam Jones left behind the great Graham Price, of Wales and the fabled Pontypool front row, to become the most capped tighthead prop in the history of the red dragonhood. Assuming he is fit to scrum down against England at Twickenham a week tomorrow, Jones will be wearing the international jersey for the 57th time, a fair old haul, yet precisely 57 shy of the number of caps won by the prop's prop, Jason Leonard, who happened to play against Jones in his 2003 debut against England, and later gave the newcomer perhaps the most meaningful praise he will ever receive. "He's a bloody big lump who takes some shifting," Leonard said.
The bloody big lump is sitting opposite me in the bar of the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel, where the Wales training camp is based. In truth, he used to be a much bigger lump, weighing in at 23 stone when he was still in his teens. At 28 he's now a sylph-like 19 stone, but that doesn't make him easier to shift. Under the gimlet eye of a former front-row forward in Warren Gatland, he has shed weight and gained fitness. Where once he struggled to last more than an hour, now he can truck around all day.
Moreover, the received wisdom in rugby union these days is that a really good tight-head prop, as the anchor of the scrum, is more covetable even than a top fly-half, not least because he belongs to a much rarer species. Jones, I venture, could probably name his price if a swanky French club came calling? He snorts. "I haven't had an offer. One day maybe."
For now he is an Ospreys man, and put in a typically monolithic shift in the controversial Heineken Cup win against Leicester Tigers last weekend. Leaving aside the small matter of his team fielding 16 players for a minute or so, Jones cites that game as one of two in his illustrious career when the scrummaging came together like a male voice choir in perfectly pitched, prize-winning harmony.
"The other time was against France [in the match] for the Grand Slam two years ago, when we pushed them off the ball on our line. Against Leicester it was pretty special too, because they're such a hard team. Castro [Martin Castrogiovanni] is a big, big boy and I've known Mefin Davies for years; he'll talk to you all day about scrummaging. I knew they'd come right back at us. But we stayed on top after that. The funny thing was that I'd been struggling for confidence all last week, because the year before against Leicester I'd had a nightmare, a really hard day at the office. If you ask my fiancée she'll tell you how nervous I was. Scared, if you want..."
It's not often you hear a fellow of his dimensions admit to being scared. Scared of what? "Scared of being embarrassed. I thought if I got hammered again then people might think the Lions tour was a fluke."
Ah, the Lions tour. They might have lost the series in South Africa last summer, but more than a few British Isles players came home with their reputations enhanced, and Jones was prominent among them, having tamed Phil Vickery's first-Test nemesis, the fearsome Tendai "the Beast" Mtawarira, in the second Test in Pretoria. Unfortunately, Jones also came home with a dislocated shoulder and badly torn shoulder ligaments, a victim of a ferocious hit by another giant Springbok, the lock Bakkies Botha, who was subsequently banned for two weeks for dangerous play. With Jones' fellow prop Gethin Jenkins trudging off injured seconds earlier, it was the pivotal moment in the match and arguably the series. After that, the scrums were uncontested and South Africa took an unassailable 2-0 lead.
Since then, the debate about Botha's challenge has rumbled on in the higher echelons of the game, but for Jones himself there is no argument. "I've said all along, he caught me fair and square. I was standing a bit too upright, and I've no qualms or grudges at all. He shouldn't have been banned, definitely not."
Nonetheless, Botha was only out for a fortnight; Jones was out for six months, not that he was aware at first of the extent of the injury. "My arm just felt numb to start with. I came off and all I could hear was Gethin shouting at a doctor for prodding him in the face. Obviously it cheered me up a bit to see him in pain." Jones gives a wry little chuckle. He has a keen sense of humour, although I confess that many of his asides are lost on both me and my tape recorder, so quietly and quickly does he speak, in the most mellifluous of Swansea Valley accents.
He was horrified when he realised his Lions tour was over. "I was so thrilled to be a part of it. I'd heard stories about the last tour to New Zealand; the boys came back and said they didn't enjoy it. But this one, from the moment we got there, was fantastic. Geech [head coach Ian McGeechan] is just a legend and I was devastated to come home after the best part of seven weeks together. Blubbing like a baby, I was."
Scared for a week before playing Leicester, blubbing like a baby coming home from South Africa, this is a man not averse to revealing his vulnerable side. But when I raise the subject of his enigmatic Ospreys and Wales team-mate, the on-sabbatical Gavin Henson, his candour dries up. "From a young age he's had a lot of media pressure, he has a super-famous partner, if he wants time out he should have time out. We'd welcome him back with open arms, but we've seen what we can do without him. We have two not-bad centres in [James] Hook and [Andrew] Bishop."
Has he seen Henson since his withdrawal? "I haven't seen him since, no." A long silence which eventually I fill. Would he consider Henson a friend? "I've known him since the Under-21s," he says evasively. "Look, I hope he comes back, but it's up to him. If he's happy, that's fine. Leave the boy alone." Fair enough, and with the subject of Gavin and Charlotte closed, let's turn to Gavin and Stacey. Someone told me recently that he'd seen Jones and his fellow prop Duncan Jones walking down a corridor together, and that from behind, with their extravagant cascades of curly hair, they looked like a couple of actresses from the hit television series, probably hard-knock mates of the redoubtable Nessa. This observation I decide not to share, but I do ask whether he watches Gavin and Stacey. "Oh yes," he says. "You've got to, haven't you?"
What else does he do in his spare time? "I like to read. Basically, I chill out with my fiancée, Nicole. We do spend a lot of time in Tescos." A low, rumbling chuckle. "We moved to Merthyr 10 months ago, and we're still not sure what to do, so four nights a week we're in Tescos, wandering around..."
He and Nicole are due to tie the knot in June 2011, and let's hope they find the right aisle to walk up, not the one marked "crisps, nuts and confectionery". Actually, that's the one aisle at Tesco's he tries to avoid, chocolate being a weakness he can't afford to indulge. Alcohol is another. The days of 12 pints and a singsong after the match have gone, but Jones cheerfully admits to loving them at the time. "There was a lot of that when I was first with Neath," he says. "We used to have lock-ins until five and six in the morning at a pub called The Duke, drinking that Dutch stuff, Oranjeboom."
Like most boys growing up in the valleys he had been baptised into rugby at an early age, and remembers his dad taking him for the first time to see Wales, at the National Stadium in November 1989, when he was eight. It was a 34-9 mauling by New Zealand, but young Jones didn't really mind, indeed his favourite player for much of the 1990s was the mighty All-Black prop Olo Brown.
It's not too much of a stretch to imagine aspiring Welsh front-rowers being similarly inspired by watching Jones against England tomorrow week. He is certainly looking forward to thundering out on to the Twickenham turf. "We had a good result there last time. I'm always up for the challenge of playing there." But is England still the match that fires up the Welsh more than any other? "A few years ago it was, but maybe not any more," he says, and although I don't think he means to sound withering, it's hard to think of any comment from the Welsh camp more likely to inflame Martin Johnson and Co.
Moreover, Jones will particularly fancy his chances in the likely absence of Andrew Sheridan, who would be propping against him next Saturday but for his own long lay-off with a damaged shoulder.
"I usually find it harder against shorter props. I'd rather prop against someone taller. But [6ft 4in] Sheridan's the exception. And I can't compete with him strength-wise, I definitely don't want to get in a one-on-one wrestle with him, so it becomes more a case of technique, and maybe a bit of cheating." What kind of cheating? "Oh, I don't want to give away too much information. But I don't mean punching, gouging, stuff like that. That doesn't really happen any more. No, I wish him well. We played together a few times in the summer and he's a nice fellow. His wife's Welsh."
Nice, with a Welsh wife – could any Englishman have greater virtues? And could it also be that Jones is one of those forwards who respect the opposition pack more than their own backs? At any rate, I tell him how my son's rugby coach organises training: "Forwards over here, girls with Mr Wilks." He smiles. "Oh yeah, there's still a bit of that. It's hard not to, with their fake tans and shaved legs."
Isn't that just one of them, the one currently taking an indefinite break? "One? One? It's pretty much all the players with double-numbers on their shirts.
"But there's one less at the minute."
This could be the moment to mention his own flowing ringlets. Do the shaved-legs brigade give him any stick about his hair? "God, no," he says. "They're jealous."
Lions and Dragons: Welsh who toured in South Africa
Adam Jones hobbled from the field during the British and Irish Lions' 28-25 defeat in last June's second Test, but how have the other Welshmen from that match fared since?
Following a fractured cheekbone in Pretoria, the prop played no further part in the tour. Recovered to captain Wales in the final autumn international against Australia.
Broke Lions record for most points scored against South Africa in a single Test. Scored 71 points for Scarlets this season.
Started final Test at hooker and featured in all the autumn internationals, but suffered groin injury against Australia that kept him out for three months.
Despite fine form in South Africa, the centre failed to make an impact in the autumn series.
One of only five players involved in all three Tests, Phillips was sidelined for the autumn series with a knee ligament injury that kept him out for 10 weeks.
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