Rugby Union: Jones throws switch to shine: International honours beckon Llanelli flanker who has profited from a change of scene and is raring to face his old club in Saturday's Welsh Cup final. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
LYN JONES is the Neil Back of Welsh rugby - or, if you prefer since the Leicester man is four years the younger, Neil Back is the Lyn Jones of English rugby and by comparison is a johnny-come-lately in the debate about the optimum dimensions for an international flanker.

The Jones debate having gone on for a decade, now at last he has the recognition many believe he has long deserved. When he goes on Wales's forthcoming tour to Zimbabwe and Namibia he will be the only out-and- out open side, so at the ripe age of 28 a first cap appears to beckon.

'Lyn Jones is the fittest, fastest, cleverest and best back-row forward in Britain,' Brian Thomas, the Neath manager, said - and that was seven years ago, when the value of 5ft 10in and 13st 6lb was already being questioned. That was also when Jones was playing for Neath, and the Wales incumbent, David Pickering, for Llanelli. Now Pickering is one of Neath's coaches and Jones plays for Llanelli against his old club in Saturday's Swalec Cup final at Cardiff Arms Park.

In an age of forward behemoths, the advance of such a sprightly forward - like that of Back - is one irony. Another is that Jones can reinforce his point for the benefit of the Wales selectors against, rather than for, Neath, where he lives and has an ironmongery and industrial components business near the town centre.

His shop is decked in the scarlet of Llanelli, whom he joined in 1990 after 200 appearances for Neath. In those days Neath were trouncing all-comers. 'I just stopped enjoying it,' Jones said. 'It got a bit boring beating everyone by 50 or 60 points each time.'

He is not saying the same thing now that Llanelli are doing likewise as league champions because he, like so many other Scarlets, is in selectorial favour. Whether at Neath or Llanelli, Lyn Jones had always been the forward who was never picked for Wales. 'There have been times when I thought it would never come though I did always have faith in my ability,' he said.

'So I kept working hard hoping that if I kept up my form, eventually they wouldn't be able to ignore me any longer. I'm grateful and relieved at last to have the chance to show what I can do.'

Quite apart from his vital statistics, Jones had a secondary problem which militated against selection: a bubbly personality which occasionally bubbled over into excess. There was, for instance, the occasion when Neath were giving Ebbw Vale a hiding and he decided to station himself beyond the opposing scrum-half, Nigel Osborne, shouting 'Ossie, Ossie'. When Osborne obliged, Jones galloped away in the direction of the Ebbw Vale line.

Such frivolity did not go down well and Jones felt the sharp end of his captain's (Kevin Phillips) and coach's (Ron Waldron) tongues. Ultimately rugby at The Gnoll became too serious for the japester in Jones and he headed for Stradey Park, where the touch is lighter even if Llanelli's results now are much the same as Neath's were then.

Jones is of distinguished rugby stock. His late father, Peter, was a famed - and feared - Aberavon flanker of the late 1950s and early 1960s, like Lyn one of those players Welsh folk put in their best uncapped teams. 'Peter was an exceptional player who was unlucky not to get a cap and I see a lot of him in Lyn,' Waldron, the former Neath coach and a contemporary of Peter Jones, said. 'The lad's sheer determination is very reminiscent of Peter.'

Waldron was pushing Lyn for Wales honours long before he became national coach in 1989, though by that time Jones Jnr was recovering from a serious knee injury. It was that same sheer determination that helped him to do so, but he never had the preferment enjoyed by so many other Neath players in the Waldron era.

'I went to Italy with the Wales B squad in 1986 and I remember sitting on the bench for a trial once: a great honour,' Jones quipped. 'The biggest disappointment was coming back from Italy and being the only person dropped from that squad. That was my first lesson in taking the downs with the ups.'

This was due in part to the knee injury. Jones was out of rugby for 12 months from November 1987, returned for the latter half of the

1988-89 season for Neath, and then took himself off to Hawaii, Australia and the Far East for 10 months. 'Rugby has to come second sometimes; the knee injury had made me realise there was more to life.

'When I came back in March 1990 I was in no fit shape, Neath weren't really playing the free-enterprise rugby I'd been used to, and I found I was running round not contributing. I thought about it through that summer and when a gap opened at Llanelli the move seemed the right thing to do.'

By then Jones's part in Neath's plans had in any case become equivocal. As a 19-year-old, he had played in the 1984 cup final against Cardiff but in his prime he could not or did not appear in any of Neath's three successive finals from 1988-90. If ever a change of scene can be said to have worked, it was Jones's.

This has partly been down to the change in him - as a person as much as a player, though the jokiness lingers. 'I'm playing better now than I ever have, and I suppose I'd put that down to experience,' Jones said. 'Put simply, I'm not so young or hot- headed any more.'

In fact, with his maturity, Jones has become cooler and more calculating than ever he was in the unpredictable old days and certainly more settled than when getting home from The Gnoll to Cwmafan in the next valley was a thrice-weekly bind.

And, of all things, it is Llanelli rather than Neath who will reap the benefit in Saturday's cup final. 'I decided that the answer was to buy a house in Neath, but by the time I bought it I'd changed clubs. I live 100 yards from Ron Waldron. I thought it would be handy for Welsh squad sessions but it never worked out. Can't think why . . . '