Rugby Union: Jones has the power to inspire The Shed

Gloucester's former All Black lock is determined to earn some respect in today's West Country derby
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The Independent Online
WHEN A rugby player has spent the best part of a decade stoking the fires of the All Black scrum and been lavishly decorated with 79 Test caps - more than Tiny White or Peter Whiting, more than Andy Haden or Gary Whetton, more even than the great pine tree himself, Colin Meads - it is not unreasonable that he should adopt a "been there, done that" view of life. During his long incarceration in the silver-ferned dungeon, Ian Jones experienced Bledisloe Cup successes, Tri-Nations triumphs and a World Cup final, not to mention the realisation of a dream in the shape of a first New Zealand series victory in South Africa. He thought he had seen the lot. And then he discovered Kingsholm.

Or, to be absolutely precise, he discovered The Shed, home to the most vociferous, one-eyed, foul-mouthed, politically incorrect band of rugby head-hunters this side of the River Styx. "I've played a a fair bit of rugby around the world," he said in Gloucester on Wednesday shortly after being told he would make his Allied Dunbar Premiership debut for the Cherry and Whites against the enemy of enemies, Bristol, this afternoon, "but The Shed is unique. There's nothing like it anywhere else. The rugby folk back home, the North Harbour supporters and the All Black followers, know their stuff and get behind you. But here, the crowd is right on top of you. It must be a huge bonus for the Gloucester team." Yes, and an even bigger disincentive for the other lot.

Frustratingly for the man they christened the "Kamo Kid" when he was first accepted into the All Black brotherhood in 1990, his league debut will be at the wrong end of the 40-mile stretch of M5 linking the two traditional powers of West Country rugby. He may not notice the difference, however. Bristol confidently expect a crowd of around 9,000 for the game, of which at least 3,000 will be "Shedheads". Jones, now 32 but still more besotted with the old game than most up-and-coming 19-year-olds, will be right up for it. "A local derby, eh? The English Premiership doesn't have too much of a profile back home, but I know enough about it to understand what this game means to the people who live in these parts."

Jones first played at Gloucester during the 1991 World Cup, when the All Blacks put nearly 50 points on the United States in a pool match, but his connection to the Cotswold area runs far deeper. He and Blyth Tait, the Olympic three-day eventer, grew up together in the very northernmost reaches of New Zealand's North Island, and have remained close friends, to the extent that Jones is now living in Tait's house in the blue-blooded equestrian territory of Northleach, between Cheltenham and Oxford. "I'm planning to get a place of my own around Cheltenham way," he said. "It's beautiful country here; one of the attractions of coming to Gloucester was the quality of life."

Another attraction, if he can be so described, was John Fidler, the Gloucester team manager who won four England caps as a seriously hostile second-row enforcer in the early 80s. Fidler earned his Kingsholm spurs in a harder, murkier, "whatever it takes" rugby epoch, when the first scrum of a match always, but always, ended in a pugilistic free-for-all. So when he and another formidable physical specimen, the Gloucester director, John Hall, pitched up in New Zealand last summer on a mission to secure Jones' signature, there was never much likelihood of their going home without it.

"John Fidler? He's an imposing man, for sure," grinned Jones this week. "I guess my name had been going the rounds since November '98, when I announced that I'd retire from international rugby after the World Cup. There were offers from Europe and a couple of Japan, but I was familiar with the Gloucester club and the surrounding area, and the thought of it appealed to me. I also liked the fact that both John Fidler and John Hall took the trouble to travel to New Zealand and meet me face to face. That was important. It showed a degree of enthusiasm and commitment on their part and I respond to those qualities.

"Certainly, I intend to bring enthusiasm and commitment to Gloucester. I know what some people say about overseas players coming into the Premiership - that their best days are behind them, that they're here for a pension - but the truth of the matter is that you wouldn't last too long if you had that kind of attitude. You'd be found out pretty bloody quickly, first of all by your club-mates and then by the supporters. Unlike in New Zealand, where I had to focus on provincial and Super 12 competitions as well as the All Blacks, I can concentrate entirely on one thing here in England. That thing is Gloucester. I can be a part of the rugby community and train every day, yet still go home each night and spend time with my family."

It is the time Jones spends on the training field that may be of most benefit to the great under-achievers of English rugby. Philippe Saint- Andre, the former French captain who now coaches Gloucester and made the decision to go fishing for the most-capped lock forward in All Black history, sees his most ambitious signing as the crucial fixed point in an increasingly cosmopolitan side. Jones, he believes, is steeped not only in the physical disciplines of the game, but in its temperamental disciplines: in attitude and competitiveness and ruthlessness. In short, he values him as a proven winner who will quickly become the focal point for the multifarious talents around him.

By coincidence, it was the absence of precisely that kind of focal point that cost the All Blacks so dearly in their classic World Cup semi-final with Saint-Andre's opportunistic compatriots. Has Jones left New Zealand rugby in a state of turmoil? "Not at all," he said. "I think New Zealand rugby is extremely healthy." Really? What about the mass resignations: John Hart as coach, Rob Fisher as chairman of the union, David Moffett as chief executive? How will New Zealand cope in the 2003 tournament without Josh Kronfeld and Jeff Wilson and, not least, Ian Jones?

"There is no doubt in my mind that the All Blacks will be in good hands, even though the new coach has yet to be named. There are some tremendous players working their way through the ranks; young, motivated, highly skilled athletes who are capable of taking the whole thing on a stage. Look, we lost a game of rugby against a very good French side who played at the peak of their powers. It happens. We also beat England in a match of extremely high quality and scored 100 points against the Italians. There were some outstanding individual performances, many of them from guys who will be around for quite a while. Whoever the new coach turns out to be, he'll have a good 2000 campaign.

"Will I miss the All Blacks? Of course. They were my life for 10 years and I'll miss the friendships, the camaraderie. I guess I won't know just how much I'm missing the blokes until I see them playing a Test on television. It will hit me then, definitely. But I have a new challenge and new priorities now. I can't just walk into Gloucester and play like I've been here for years; I have to prove myself all over again if I'm to earn the respect of my colleagues. But I'm here for the right reasons. I love playing rugby, always have. And I'm going to love playing here, in front of The Shed."

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