Growth of Jones into true giant

Steve Bale reports on the prodigy produced by an Australian coach FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Wales face a big task at Murrayfield while the Irish count on their white knight against France
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Alex Evans first saw him playing - in a students trial at Aberavon - Derwyn Jones was, he says, "head and shoulders above everyone". But though the fledgeling Wales lock stands 6ft 10in, this is not the statement of the blindingly obvious it seems.

Cardiff's Australian coach means it figuratively just as much as literally and this is indicative of Alex's smart perception. Too many of us prematurely despaired of Jones and it is his and Evans's joint triumph that he has so swiftly turned himself into a worthy international.

This afternoon against Scotland, Jones, a 24-year-old constable in the Gwent force, wins his fourth cap, living proof that Wales can after all produce big men. In the history of Test rugby, only Martin Bayfield of England and Peter Stagg of Scotland have stood as tall.

Stepping out at Murrayfield, Jones is still waiting for his first win but whatever the disappointment of successive defeats by South Africa, France and England, he has already become the ball-winner Wales cannot do without.

Given that he had spent his pre-Cardiff career attempting to convince an army of doubting Thomases and any other Welsh surname you can think of, this is already a prodigious achievement. "He always knew what to do but he did lack the confidence to do it," Evans said. "Right from the start I felt that if he were shown the right way and given sensible guidance he could become something special."

So for the past 18 months this Australian has been creating an athlete for Wales. That he acknowledges he has as yet only partially succeeded can now be taken as evidence of immense future potential where once it would have been evidence of predictable failure.

"You have a different perspective when you are looking down from 6-10 rather than 5-10, and when you are such a tall player you take a long time to strengthen your co-ordination and develop your skills," Jones said. "People look at the negative side of your game and tend to think of you as cumbersome.

"I've had to work very hard under Alex and sometimes it's been really, really difficult. There may be people who imagine I just walked into the side and it's been a bed of roses but there have been times on the training pitch when I've gone beyond the limit."

Jones came into Evans's care by a circuitous route that led from home in Pontarddulais, West Glamorgan, to the celebrated rugby institution of Loughborough University after he had represented the Welsh Schools. He played in three winning universities' finals at Twickenham, had 15 games for Neath, 20 for Llanelli and even five for Northampton, packing down twice with another 6ft 10in lock, one Martin Bayfield, to form the most vertiginous second row in creation.

To the casual eye, nothing in any of this - except the simple fact of his gargantuan proportions - indicated an international forward in the making. But to Evans, the challenge of turning this sort of raw material into the finished product was familiar from his own experiences in Australia with the likes of Steve Cutler and Bill Campbell.

"I'm not saying nobody else could have done it but, having gone through precisely this process with Cutler and Campbell and a few other Australians, I had at least done it before," Evans said. "There are clear parallels here with Steve Cutler: the basic set play was there but he has had to improve his mauling and rucking and his general around-the-field play.

"When you are that height, you tend to be very awkward - and appear awkward - when you are younger. Perhaps people were a little impatient and didn't give him the chance to work and progress over a period of time, because once he had the chance Derwyn came on superbly. To take the most obvious example, we worked out a programme of weight training that has taken him from 17st to between 19 and 191/2."

Before Jones had made a single appearance for Cardiff he was packed off by Evans in 1993 for an educative summer's rugby in Brisbane with the Souths club, where his team-mates included as many as eight Wallabies and he shared accommodation with two of them, Garrick Morgan and Troy Coker.

Not least among the benefits of this Australian sojourn was to prepare him for the rigours of rugby life as an ex-student. "It showed me, as maybe nothing else could have done, the demands that will be placed upon you if you really want to make it," he said.

"What I needed after Loughborough was to play regularly at the top level in the First Division and come up against people of proven ability. That was a general thing but more specifically I needed to work on many aspects of my game, my aerobic fitness, strength levels, my plyometric work - jumping ability - and ball skills.

"I saw it as make or break, really, when I joined Cardiff and that spurred me on a bit. People had seen that I'd already played for a couple of clubs and took a negative message from that. Because I wasn't playing regularly in Wales, there wasn't a very high opinion of my game.

"I didn't know Alex Evans at all, so I was playing a hunch. But while he was positive in what he could do for me he was also totally honest. He told me that with the work we would be doing I should be looking to play for Wales within the next year or two, challenging me that I would have to do it during that period or not at all."

Which is how it has transpired. Jones's inclusion has had the beneficial corollary of taking pressure from his Wales second-row partner, Gareth Llewellyn, and Welsh ball-winning against the Springboks, French and even England until Jones lost both his line-out support players, John Davies and Hemi Taylor, was becoming more consistently productive than since Robert Norster's day in the Eighties.

Today's Scots may be glad of an Aussie's assurance that the best is yet to come. "It's been an incredible improvement but Derwyn has a lot more to work on and I can see a major progression even in another 12 months," Evans said.

"In fact, in two years' time, provided he keeps progressing at the same speed and in the same direction, he could be one of the great second-rowers in the world." Which is praise as high as Derwyn Jones himself.