Before Gareth Jenkins and Stephen Jones, Wales's coach and his captain, held a press conference to explain how their country would beat Ireland, Gavin Henson was behind the wheel of a big silver Merc and heading out of the squad's base at the Vale of Glamorgan. Mercury was falling and this was a bit, just a bit, like the Irish telling Brian O'Driscoll there was no room for him at the inn.
There was not even a place for Henson on the bench. "He's not playing well enough," Jenkins explained. "He's under far too much scrutiny from the press and that has not helped him at all." Besides, Wales had other issues. Gareth Thomas, the former captain who has also been under intense scrutiny for all the wrong reasons, was named on the wing, but then they had to reshuffle the back line when they learnt he had been banned for getting involved in the notorious case of Trevor Brennan clambering into the stand to confront a spectator in the recent Toulouse-Ulster match.
Was Jones bothered by all of this? If he was, he did not show it. With 58 caps to his name only Martyn Williams, another former captain, has more Test exper-ience. Jones appeared to be so relaxed he was not even sure who would be taking the goal- kicks at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff this afternoon, no small consideration given that Ronan O'Gara is one of the best marksmen in the business.
Jones said he would leave the decision up to Neil Jenkins, Wales's kicking coach. The alternative is James Hook. "I'll keep out of it," Jones said. "I enjoy kicking for Llanelli, and if I don't have to do it for Wales I suppose it's one less responsibility." This issue became curiouser when Gareth Jenkins said there was no debate - Jones will be the goal-kicker.
When Wales kickstarted their Grand Slam in February 2005 with an 11-9 victory over England in Cardiff the match-winning penalty came in the dying minutes from the golden boot of Henson. It was just inside England's half and Jones, thinking it was outside his range, asked a reluctant Henson to take the kick. The upshot was that it was Henson who became an instant national hero, which may have been the best thing, and possibly the worst, to happen to him.
Jones and Henson could hardly be more different, and not just in appearance and lifestyle. The former has the nickname of "The Count" because he has a complexion out of the Hammer House of Horrors and looks as if he could be an understudy to Dracula; the latter seems to be starring in a Welsh soap opera.
In many ways Jones does not fit the image of a Wales fly-half. Gareth Jenkins, in laying out his agenda for what he hopes will be a momentous season - a minimum of 14 Tests, more if Wales prosper in the World Cup - said the country had produced some of the world's greatest players, and among them he mentioned five No 10s. There was Cliff Morgan, David Watkins, Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies. No Jones but, to be fair, he was talking more distant past rather than present. And no Neil Jenkins, the record points-scorer.
Jones doesn't do glamour. There is no dazzling sidestep, searing acceleration or outrageous dummy, but he is still there and he has won more caps than JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards and Gerald Davies. There is, though, an admirable quality about Jones and it is not just his modesty. He can usually be relied upon to do the right thing by the team, whether they are Llanelli Scarlets or Wales. He tends to kick goals when the pressure is on - and he has been known to shred a defence.
Take that Slam of two seasons ago. It was heading down the Seine when France opened up a 15-3 lead in Paris and it could have been a whole lot more. On the stroke of half-time Jones kicked a penalty - it took him past 400 points for Wales - and it was one of his most important. "We couldn't get our hands on the ball and we were lucky not be out of it," Jones recalled.
"As it was we scrambled in defence and I managed to kick a couple of goals. What can I say about our start to the second half? I remember breaking through and finding acres of space. The French must have been thinking, 'He's going to offload, he has to offload', because they hung off me.
"I just kept going and going until the support caught up. Then the ball went wide, Shane Williams weaved his magic and Martyn Williams was over near the posts."
Wales went on to win 24-18, Jones scoring 14 points. "I'll tell you something for nothing. Rugby doesn't get much better than the feeling I had at the final whistle - relief, exhaustion, pride, camaraderie... you name it, I felt it. Mentally I was dazed and physically I felt like I'd been run over by a truck. I spent a lot of time tackling, and I had bruises on top of bruises. They targeted our fly-half channel and I knew they were coming at me." They chose the wrong target.
At the time Jones was playing in France, for Clermont at the Stade Marcel Michelin which, in culinary terms, has a star or three on Llanelli's Stradey Park, where his career had been influenced by Gareth Jenkins and his assistant, Nigel Davies, who is now Wales's attack coach.
He spent two years away from Llanelli. "It was a great experience, playing in a different country and learning a new language. The only problem was the travelling. I'd spend many a Sunday evening in Amsterdam waiting for a connection to Cardiff. At least in Wales I only have to drive up the M4 and not catch two planes and a taxi." And would not the garlic have had an adverse effect on The Count?
The Scarlets, despite financial difficulties, couldn't wait to get him back. "His time in France gave him a new edge and maturity," Stuart Gallacher, the Llanelli chief executive, said. "A player either dislikes a move like that or makes a real go of it. Stephen made it work." There is more to the unsung captain than meets the eye. After all, he was identified as a leader when he captained the Carmarthen Under-11 soccer team. Not many people have made the move from Carmarthen to Clermont and even fewer the reverse journey, but Jones is one of them.
The Slam and the convoluted departure of the coach Mike Ruddock was followed by a crash in the Six Nations last season when, under the captaincy of Gareth Thomas and then Michael Owen, Wales lost heavily to England and Ireland, drew with Italy and registered one victory, over Scotland.
Jones took over the captaincy in the autumn and things went from bad to worse. He limped off after 20 minutes against Australia, who had built a big lead, and then had to endure the Hook factor. Young James came on, played a blinder and inspired Wales to an honourable 29-29 draw. A few weeks later Jones returned to lead the side against the all-conquering All Blacks and they were beaten 45-10.
"With hindsight I shouldn't have played," Jones admitted. "I'd had the all-clear from the physio but I wasn't that sharp." Daniel Carter was and New Zealand scored five tries to one, Hook coming on as a replacement. Of the young Osprey, who will be at inside-centre today, Jones says: "He's been superb. He's a very talented individual and this is great for us. It gives our attack another dimension." It is what they have been looking for, although their priority is to expose the Ireland front row and go after the half-backs.
Jenkins and Jones are now talking about playing the "Welsh way", a term once employed by Ruddock. "We've got to play to our strengths," Jones said. "The problem last season is that we were too one-dimensional and we were too easy to read. We've had to be honest with ourselves. We were nowhere near it in the autumn but we've worked hard on getting a better mix and we've got a gameplan that everyone's comfortable with."
It helps that Jones gets on like a house on fire with his club and country half-back partner, Dwayne Peel. Both are Welsh speakers and they occasionally slip into the language to confuse the opposition, although when they curse or swear it is in English. There could be a fair bit of that directed today at Simon Easterby, an integral part of the Ireland back row who happens to be the Llanelli Scarlets captain.
"Simon will be a nuisance in the contact area," Jones said. "He will fight for every ball, slow our game down and he could frustrate us. He does it every week for our club."
Peel was less diplomatic, and he didn't flag it in his native tongue. "One thing you get with Simon is total commitment. He's a great player and a complete pain in the arse."
But only when he is wearing green. Come the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, when the Scarlets host Munster, Jones will not have the responsibility of captaincy but he will, once again, be up against O'Gara. It's a small world, the global game, but at least Jones speaks it in several languages.
Life & Times: From Scarlets to the Red Dragon
NAME: Stephen Michael Jones.
BORN: 8 December 1977, Aberystwyth.
VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 14st 6lb.
NICKNAME: The Count.
CLUB CAREER: Llanelli 1996-2003 - Welsh Premier Division champions '99, '02, Welsh Cup winners '98, '00, '03; Llanelli Scarlets '03-04 - Celtic League winners '04; Clermont-Auvergne '04-06; Llanelli Scarlets '06-current.
INTERNATIONAL CAREER: 58 caps for Wales, 512 points - second highest Wales scorer after Neil Jenkins (1,049); debut versus South Africa '98; World Cup '03; appointed captain October '06. British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand '05; 3 caps, 14 points. Captained Wales Under-18s and Under-21s, winning Grand Slam.Reuse content