Rugby Union: Jones replaces Armstrong in the Lions' den

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The Independent Online
ROBERT JONES, the scrum-half with the sweetest pass in British rugby, will be a Lion in New Zealand after all. Gary Armstrong yesterday pulled out of the 13-match tour, his fitness, not to mention his enthusiasm, in doubt, leaving Jones to join the other tourists for their training weekend beginning today.

The reason given for the 26-year-old Scottish international's belated withdrawal was an ankle injury, but he is also carrying a groin injury which has kept him inactive since Scotland played at Twickenham on 6 March. But equally important could be Armstrong's aversion to nine weeks away from his home in the Borders.

By replacing him with Jones, 27, the selectors have settled on a completely different type from either Armstrong or Dewi Morris, the other scrum-half in the Lions party. Jones's forte is smooth passing and clever kicking and definitely not committing opposing back rows in the Morris/Armstrong manner.

'With the way things were going at the start of the season, I genuinely felt all I had to do was continue playing as I was and I would go with the Lions,' Jones said yesterday. In fact, although he maintained his form for Swansea, his international fortunes deteriorated even faster than Wales's. By the time Wales concluded the championship in France he had been dropped. His place on the Wales tour of Zimbabwe and Namibia has now gone to Robert Howley of Bridgend.

Jones has won 46 caps for Wales, a figure exceeded only by two winning Lions in New Zealand in 1971, John Williams and Gareth Edwards. But more significantly he played (in preference to Armstrong) in all three Tests on the 1989 Lions tour to Australia, where his tactical kicking was decisive in the Wallabies' downfall.

Even so, having been excluded from the original selection Jones now regards himself as second choice behind Morris. 'But it's a long tour and there are good few games before the first Test,' he added. Six, to be precise, and it would be no surprise if Jones emerges from them ahead.

It had been a miserable period for Jones, as the recorded message on his answerphone poignantly conveyed, and it needed a phone call from the Lions manager to cheer him up. 'When Geoff Cooke rang through, someone in the office said it was the first smile they'd seen on my face for three months.'

As for the answerphone, Jones reminded callers that he had once been good enough for the Lions and Wales and remained 'thankfully, still good enough for Swansea'. It has already been changed.

(Photograph omitted)