Rugby Union: Jones earns respect the hard way

Paul Trow meets the man who is entrusted to keep the Welsh heads held high
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Gwyn Jones has far to go before being lionised in Welsh rugby folklore alongside Dr JPR Williams. Yet for bravery, almost in professional defiance of the injuries which the sport has already inflicted upon him, the 25-year-old medical student could have been cast from the same heroic, and hippocratic, mould.

It is this mental strength which has persuaded the national coach, Kevin Bowring, that the Cardiff back-row forward may be the man to lead Wales into the 1999 World Cup.

"We're not into making people captain for three-year periods or anything like that. But Gwyn's an exceptionally intelligent player and is the ideal captain from my point of view. He understands the game I want to play," said Bowring. "He's also utterly courageous which is perhaps why he suffers so many injuries, but is also why he has the respect of the whole squad."

Since taking over as his country's captain in the United States last summer, and continuing this term against Romania and Tonga, Jones has chalked up four consecutive victories. However, he knows only too well that the slate trumpeting the 100 per cent record is likely to be wiped clean on Saturday at Wembley against the mighty All Blacks.

"They are by far the best team in the world," said Jones, who will win his 13th cap. "For us it's a double-edged sword playing against such an outstanding side because you're looking for ways to improve your own game while wanting to measure yourself against the best. It'll be an exciting challenge."

The biggest challenge facing Jones, however, will be to keep his players' heads up when the going gets tough. Not surprisingly, though, the optimistic, clear-eyed Jones disagrees. "We have a lot of experienced players who are full of confidence and I don't think I'll have to do any of that. Welsh rugby has benefited from the Lions' success and Scott Gibbs was the man of the series. It has given us the belief that we can perform at the highest level."

Such a jaunty bedside manner should serve Jones, the son of two GPs from Loughor near Llanelli, in good stead once he graduates from the University of Wales College of Medicine. "I've got nine months to complete my course, but I'm taking a two-year sabbatical to concentrate on rugby until after the World Cup. It's too early to say whether I'll specialise in sports injuries [like JPR] but I could help injured players on the psychological side as well as with treatment and rehabilitation."

Undoubtedly, Jones has the necessary experience. He has needed operations for dislocations to both shoulders over the last three years, the first delaying his international debut until 1996 and the more recent sustained during that summer's tour of Australia. That restricted him to just two replacement appearances during last season's Five Nations' Championship and in effect scuppered his Lions ambitions.

"Last season was very frustrating," said Jones, who had only just switched clubs from Llanelli. "It's difficult to say whether I'd have gone on the Lions tour because the injury ruled me out of contention. In reality, I was never in the picture."

According to Bowring, Jones is being harsh on himself. "I think Gwyn would have been an automatic selection for the Lions. He's a fast, dynamic flanker, just what they needed in South Africa. His workrate and arrival at the tackle area are not matched by Neil Back or Richard Hill, but he needs to improve his handling skills to Back's level and acquire a few more of Hill's physical qualities."

Jones hails from "a family of No 7s. At least five of my relatives have played in that position for the village team over the years". Ivor Jones, his great uncle, scaled a somewhat higher pinnacle as an open-side flanker, playing 14 seasons for Llanelli, 16 times for Wales and in five Tests for the Lions in 1930.

Unlike Ivor, who left Llanelli in the early 1920s to work in Birmingham, Gwyn does not envisage joining the exodus to England. "Financially, Cardiff are better off than most Welsh clubs and I'm firmly rooted here. My college are very understanding about giving me time off. I don't think they'd be too happy if I went off to play in England."

For the time being, England is home for Wales, but as far as Jones is concerned the glamour is undimmed. "The thrill of leading the team out as captain, especially against New Zealand, will be like winning my first cap all over again. To do it at Wembley in front of a sell-out crowd is a truly exciting prospect."

A brave new world, no less.