Rugby Union: Conversion of a wild man: Guy Hodgson meets a reformed rugby coach on a divine mission

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The Independent Online
NOTHING exemplifies the transformation in Chris Jones better than his personal baggage. When he was a barely controlled thug in Welsh rugby he would carry an axe in his kitbag - 'Just in case things got a bit difficult'. Now he keeps a copy of the New Testament in his pocket.

Jones, coach of the Heineken Welsh League Second Division leaders Treorchy, is a born-again Christian, which to anyone who had the misfortune to confront him in his playing days must be a change that beggars belief. He worships at Porth Christian Centre now when once his devotion lay with perpetrating his own brand of spite and brutality on the rugby field.

Jones, 35 and retired six years, admits there was nothing he would not do to win a rugby match. A prop with the club he now coaches, he was a focal point for front-row violence, inflicting injury without remorse, glorying in a hard-man reputation. 'I would kick or stamp on an opponent's head without a second thought,' he said.

In a world where villainy can sometimes be misinterpreted as strength, he was in the Herculean class. 'I had a terrible reputation. Absolutely terrible. People used to call me a psychopath and a wild man. When I was at school I was training to be the best rugby player for my age in Wales. Once I'd left I was trying to be the biggest headbanger, the maddest player.'

There are few doubts he achieved that. To put his career in perspective, players are rarely banned for life by the Welsh Rugby Union - five dismissals are necessary - and Jones was suspended sine die twice. In addition he was also given various sentences by Treorchy, the biggest of which was five years. A different soul now, he works as rugby development officer for the club, preaching the game's gospel to schoolchildren.

Jones was good enough as a youngster himself to be selected for the Welsh Under-15 and Under-19 squads but his lack of height, 5ft 8in, was a handicap which he could overcome only by straying further on the wrong side of the line separating aggressive from dirty play.

His first stinging brush with the WRU came on Boxing Day in 1982 when he was dismissed for being what he describes as 'a complete idiot'. The lunacy included a brawl with any Treherbert opponent handy, pushing the referee when he refused to leave the field and then threatening to take on anyone in the crowd. For that he received a 28-week ban.

That inactivity was followed by a dozen games spread over three years during which he was twice banned indefinitely, the more notable dismissal being in a Welsh Cup match against Cardiff when he was one of four players sent off.

Jones got his third rugby life and second WRU reprieve just in time to quit with a trapped nerve in his back, a disappointment which added impetus to his indulging in excess alcohol and drugs. He went into coaching with his brother Clive, first at Pontypridd and then Treorchy but while he was a success in that field his life beyond rugby was a mess which culminated in his arrest at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 1990. Jones, wrongly identified, faced charges that could have led to a lengthy jail sentence and it was while he was pacing his police cell on the night before he faced his first appearance in court that his character underwent a radical alteration.

'I was frightened, very frightened because I didn't know what was going to happen,' he said. 'I was worried no one would believe me but most of all I was disgusted with myself. I was a total waster. I'd wasted my time at grammar school, my career prospects and my marriage. But even the thing I said I loved most, rugby, I'd spent more time watching than playing because of my attitude.

'The only thing I could do was pray. 'I'm going to change,' I thought, and from the bottom of my heart I knew I would. Then there was a sudden realisation I was made to be a Christian. There was no flashing light, I didn't hear voices or a thunderclap, but I instantly had an inner peace. I thought, 'No matter what happens to me they can't take away this experience.' '

The courts did not deny him his liberty either, reducing the charge to causing an affray for which he received a fine. 'When I told my wife (Gillian) that I'd found Christ she said she'd heard all my excuses but that took the cake. She was sceptical, but thankfully over a period of time she saw I really had changed.'

To an extent where he has not touched alcohol since and has overcome his own scepticism about rejoining rugby. 'My local pastor persuaded me that Christianity should not be contained within four walls but taken to the people. The reason I'm in rugby is to show people that Christians can live ordinary lives. We're not super-spiritual people. I've not grown three heads, I'm just the same on the outside. It's on the inside I'm different.'

Since Jones has joined his brother Clive at Treorchy they have been promoted from the Third Division and are on course for the First. It is a club where foul play is severely frowned upon by a forward coach who is ripe for poacher- turned-gamekeeper accusations. 'The players know the score,' Jones said. 'I don't hide anything. If a player accuses me of hyprocrisy, I say, 'Yes, and look where it got me.' Someone like me would be a liability now. There was plenty of commitment when I played but there were no leagues then, so at the end of the day if you did get sent off and it cost you the match, so what?

'Any pack of forwards that is coached by me will be a hard, committed, aggressive set of forwards and I accept that if somone throws a punch at a player it is human nature he will want to throw one back. But if it happens a few times I have to tell him he has to sort himself out because maybe he's a bit too hot-headed. I can't impose my views on people but if someone is handicapping the club because of his violent play then I won't pick him.'

Regrets? 'I can't condone what I did but I've never been as happy and to get to where I am now I've had to do these things. Who's to say if I'd been an international I'd be as content? I know that 50 caps for Wales does not compare to having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.'

(Photograph omitted)

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