Rugby Union: Jones keeps Bristol fire burning

Tim Glover talks to the Welsh scrum-half who still commands respect
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The Independent Online
IF THE power of positive thinking means anything, Bristol are in ship-shape condition, the lifeboats have not been manned and the captain is still on the bridge. "On the basis that you're only as good as your last game, we are doing quite well," Robert Jones said.

Bristol, to the surprise of most people and the astonishment of Northampton, beat the Saints at the Memorial Ground last weekend. This was the same Northampton who had annihilated Leicester the previous week, except, of course, that it wasn't - for if Bristol find a victory in the Premiership a blessed relief, Northampton seem incapable of sustaining a challenge from one match to the next.

Nothing, however, should deflect from the fact that Bristol, earmarked for dry dock, are afloat and on course for a meeting today with Saracens, one of the Premiership's flagships, at Watford.

"Realistically," Jones, the Bristol captain said, "we don't have a chance. Saracens look like a championship-winning side. Francois Pienaar has added steel, defensively they're excellent, they have good quality attacking players and Michael Lynagh to control affairs. But it's a funny old game and it's been a funny old season."

In midweek Jones brokered a consultation with the club's directors, not so much a Mutiny on the Bounty, more a meeting about the lack of bounty.

"The players' minds were put at ease," Jones said. "My understanding is that things are under control. I have already had my hands slapped over something that appeared in the local press so I'm not saying too much. Lots of clubs have problems but Bristol's are the most publicised because we don't have a backer."

An American stadium company pulled out last week, prompting the former president, Arthur Holmes, a retired insurance magnate, to pump another pounds 200,000 into the club on top of the pounds 1.3m he had already underwritten. Arthur's heart seems to be ruling his head. Bristol would appear to be a high-risk client, double indemnity stamped all over it. Not at all.

"Things are wonderfully well," Jeff Lewis, the chief executive, said. "The sun is shining and Bristol looks beautiful. People keep writing us off. What a load of crap. A backer has pulled out, possibly because they got cold feet after hearing comments from people like Nigel Wray and Ashley Levett. We have other interested parties and we will survive. It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."

Notwithstanding the fact that a large soprano has been waiting in the wings, exercising her larynx, Bristol, Lewis maintains, are "bullish".

"Ideally," Jones said, "we could do with another three or four players but we'll have to make do with what we've got. Three months ago we seemed to be well down the road to bringing in a sponsor and our intention then was not just to survive but to compete with the best. Our goal was a top- four spot. Instead we were identified as relegation candidates. When I took the job on I knew it was going to be tough."

Bristol's recruitment plans went into reverse and they lost Mark Regan and Simon Shaw. "We are facing back rows of international quality week in week out," Jones said. "We are always up against players who have either been there and done it or going to get there. We have players of exceptional potential but they need to be brought on alongside experienced internationals."

Jones, of course, has been there and done it, winning 52 caps as scrum- half for Wales from 1986 to 1993 and starring in the 1989 Lions tour to Australia. If ever a player seemed suited to one club it was Jones. He is Swansea's most capped player and first represented the All Whites while still at Cwmtawe School.

Why on earth would he leave one of Wales's premier clubs for an outfit that used to be one of England's stalwarts but was clearly in some trouble? "I have no regrets about leaving Swansea," Jones said. "I'd been there for 13 years and when I left I was planning a big testimonial. You don't throw that away easily so it wasn't a question of me going to reap a financial reward. I did it because promises were made to me that were never kept. I'd spent my life at Swansea and it was a case of Robert Jones being taken for granted. I still have the utmost respect for the players but some of the administrators let me down badly."

When Kyran Bracken left for Saracens, Alan Davies, the Bristol coach, signed Jones. This seemed a bit odd since Jones's international career suffered under Davies's spell as the Wales coach.

"The victory over Northampton came as a great relief to Robert and to me," Davies said. "He wanted to be captain this season which was a very positive response. The real test of an organisation is when the team are losing and the pressure mounts on people in key positions. Robert is very much a leader by example and players look up to him. It is difficult for him to appreciate how much they admire him. He's playing well enough at the moment to be considered the No 2 scrum-half in Wales."

Jones's contract runs out this season and it hasn't been renewed. He'll be 32 next week. "There's plenty of fight in the old dog. Nothing has ever dented my enthusiasm."

Meanwhile, the drinks are on Arthur Holmes, the benefactor who sounds like a property company but is often found drinking in the Presidents' Bar. "He's got Bristol at heart," Jones said, "and his loyalty has given all of us confidence."